Elephants and rhinos in Africa are increasingly threatened by poaching as ivory and rhino horns become more desirable, but a new method using drones has proven effective in stopping the poachers in their tracks — from thousands of miles away.
More than 20,000 elephants were killed by poachers in 2014, according to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Nearly 1,300 rhinos were poached on the continent last year — a number that spiked from 62 killed rhinos in 2007, according to the World Wildlife Fund.
A group called Air Shepherd hopes to stop the longtime problem of poaching by using new technologies — computer-controlled drones that spot poachers, and make it easier for rangers to find them across Africa's massive landscape.
"In the past six months where we've been operating in Africa, we've arrested a lot of poachers," said Dr. Thomas Snitch, who, with his colleagues at the University of Maryland, has been researching and testing this use for the technology.
The benefit of drones is that they can monitor a lot more ground than rangers.
Computer data is vital in telling the drones where to fly. The computers process data to predict where the animals will be each night, Snitch explained. And where there are elephants and rhinos, there are often poachers.
The drones are put in the air over those heavily-trafficked areas, and, using infrared cameras, send footage back to drone operators, according to the Air Shepherd website. When poachers are spotted, the operators can then alert nearby rangers to intercept them, the website says.
Snitch said the drones are also helpful in collecting additional data about the habits of the animals and poachers.
"By using science, math, and satellites and drones — maybe we have a chance to save some of these animals," Snitch said.
The animals aren't the only beneficiaries.
Wildlife in Africa is a huge source of income because it draws tourism. Without the animals, the tourism industry and many livelihoods are at stake, Snitch said. "We are saving jobs. And I think that's the real key to this," he said.
Wildlife crime is also "historically and inexorably linked to the exploitation of local communities and poor people," according to the Elephant Action League. Terrorist groups, including those affiliated with al Qaeda, fund their violence, in part, with profits from illegally trading ivory and rhino horns, according to the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
Al Shabab, the extremist group that carried out an attack that left at least 147 dead at a Kenyan college this week, brings in between $200,000 and $600,000 a month from Ivory, alone, according to the Elephant Action League (EAL). "In effect, ivory serves as one of the lifelines of al Shabab, enabling it to maintain its grip over young soldiers," reported, Andrea Crosta, the Executive Director of EAL.
The negative impacts of poaching are arguably more vast than the African terrain, which is why those developing and supporting Air Shepherd believe the project is imperative.
"This is a global problem, and it needs global solutions," Snitch said.
Anne Thompson and Meagan Redman contributed to this report.