Can Drones Save Elephants From Poachers?

Can Drones Save Elephants From Poachers?
Photo by Jon Mountjoy

Can Drones Save Elephants From Poachers? by Liam Jackson-Penn State, Futurity

Using a variety of geographical information system (GIS) tools may be  a way to monitor and even reduce elephant poaching, according to conservationists.

Wanting to understand the similarities of elephant poaching locations, scientists analyzed the geographic features of 156 known locations occurring in the 8,150-square-mile area in the Tsavo region in southwest Kenya. Tsavo is home to that country’s largest elephant population.

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Nearly 69 percent of poaching instances occur within 1.5 miles from a road and 62 percent occur within 2.5 miles of lakes, rivers, or other water features.

“We know that elephants need water, and it makes sense that poachers would exploit that by looking for elephants in those areas,” says Michael Shaffer, who conducted the research while a student in the master of geographic information systems program taught through the Penn State World Campus. “At the same time, poachers need roads for quick access into and out of elephant habitats. These locations seemed intuitive, but we were trying to confirm how statistically important they were.”

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Finding high-risk poaching areas was critical. Recent studies have shown that conservation efforts focused on high-value areas are more effective than patrolling the entirety of vast habitat regions. Elephants routinely travel 20 to 40 miles in a day, making their habitat one of the largest for terrestrial mammals.

To monitor the region, researchers proposed that conservation groups employ the use of unpiloted aerial vehicles—drones—since more than 85 percent of poaching incidents occur in areas of open, low shrub, or savannah areas. The findings appear in the journal Tropical Conservation Science.

“The idea of using a drone in an area where it’s challenging to do conservation work is coming up more and more because, in the case of Africa, where you’ve got multiple large animals that move long distances day to day, the idea of trying to monitor them and protect them is daunting,” says Joseph Bishop, an instructor in the John A. Dutton e-Education Institute at Penn State. “Using drones doesn’t cost as much as using a helicopter, and it also keeps people out of danger from being attacked by poachers.”

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After completing their habitat analysis, researchers identified high-risk areas for poaching throughout the region and made recommendations for locations of surveillance or guard stations, which would help conservation agencies optimize their efforts. Then, they created efficient flight paths for drones, starting at locations with the highest potential poaching risk.

“Using basic GIS, we wanted to help conservation planners model areas of coverage that drones with different types of cameras could effectively monitor. We identified the time required to cover areas for each drone in order to help people choose the correct equipment for regions they need to monitor,” Shaffer says.

Though the study focuses on the Tsavo region, researchers say the technique could easily be applied to other geographic regions.

“We were pairing a habitat model for elephants with likely access points for poachers, taking into consideration the starting point for ground patrols and rangers who would need to respond if alerted to poaching,” says Bishop. “Every land area has its own challenge, but this same basic approach can be used virtually anywhere.”

Source: Penn State

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