Above a broad Namibian savanna where elephants and rhinos still roam, flies a plane with nobody aboard. The plane’s wingspan reaches all of seven feet, and at barely 15 pounds it is light enough to have been hurled skyward with a fling of an arm, and kept there by an electric propeller that hums like a giant bee over the primordial African landscape. It appears as a hobbyist’s toy, except that this particular craft carries a camera constantly searching the bush with serious intent for rhinos—and for the armed intruders who would readily kill them for nothing more than their horn.
This little plane, and a small experimental band of others like it, is taking to the air in defense of some of nature’s iconic wildlife in their last great sanctuaries. Rhinos, elephants, and tigers, from Africa to Asia, have come under merciless assault to feed a booming $10 billion market for their ivory, horn, skin and bone. And it is these same unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that are now being armed with fine-tuned sensors and software to even the odds against sprawling and well-equipped criminal cartels. “We’re getting our head handed to us on this wildlife trade issue,” says Carter Roberts, president and CEO of World Wildlife Fund. “We need to up our game.”
Wildlife crime tracks a dark chain of supply and demand, often beginning with ruthless gangs armed with AK-47s and ending in middle class homes in Asia and the US.
To avoid detection, the killers have sometimes taken to firing silent tranquilizer guns, and then with their machetes and axes hacking the horns and faces off live rhinos. The butchers have lately gone on a tear. In 2012, some 30,000 African elephants were slaughtered, a 20-year high. In Asia, 100 tigers were poached—out of a dwindling world population of perhaps only 3,200. And in South Africa, where once some 20 rhinos were killed each year, the 2012 tally leapt to 668, with the casualties in 2013 on pace to break 900.
The poachers’ brazen resolve was viscerally displayed this year in one of nature’s most hallowed arenas. There, in the Central African Republic’s Dzanga-Ndoki National Park, in a famous clearing called Dzanga Bai, upwards of 200 forest elephants—grown accustomed to human observers—had made a daily ritual of gathering to sip and bathe in the clearing’s mineral spring. On May 6, 2013, a gang of 17 Sudanese thugs armed with assault rifles arrived by truck, mounted the tourists’ viewing platform, and began shooting. By the time the smoke cleared and help arrived, 26 elephants lay dead.
The poaching pandemic comes largely fueled by both Asian and American demands for bogus medicines and status symbols, cured and carved from the butchered bodies of once magnificent animals. The consumers are typically well-to-do and blissfully far removed from the blood and terror of the killing fields. Elephant tusk, often rendered to ivory trinkets in shops from Hong Kong to Manhattan, is going for a staggering amount. Rhino horn is selling in Vietnam—as a tonic for hangovers, among other wishful cures—for more than the price of gold. Illegal wildlife trade generates the kind of big money that feeds some of society’s most dangerous factions.
“Terrorist groups are being financed from poaching,” says Crawford Allan, WWF’s chief expert on illegal wildlife trade. “What starts as civil unrest is now fueling the fire. The rule of law is being undermined by armed gangs coming in and mowing down elephants and fleeing across borders to trade with crime syndicates.”
Wildlife trafficking—now ranking among the leading criminal vocations along with drugs, human trafficking, counterfeiting and weapons—has risen to the attention of world leaders. In July, President Obama ordered up a new task force to fight wildlife trafficking at home and abroad and pledged $10 million to support Africans in the fight. And the Internet powerhouse Google, under its Global Impact Awards, granted WWF $5 million to help them advance antipoaching technology.
“We look for blue-sky ideas that are also pragmatic,” says Jacquelline Fuller, director of Google Giving. “We looked at hundreds and hundreds of organizations before picking World Wildlife Fund’s project. They have what we like to call ‘a healthy disregard for the impossible.’”
“For the first time we are seeing such a high level of commitment for combating wildlife trafficking on the world stage,” says Allan. “It’s a sea change.”
Elevating the Cause
Helped along by WWF’s global Stop Wildlife Crime campaign, that sea change has in fact permeated all the way from oval offices and board rooms to basement workshops and garage labs, in a groundswell of green-leaning entrepreneurship. Biologists are using UAVs to count cranes in Colorado, walrus populations in the Arctic and orangutan nests in the rain forests of Indonesia. Wildlife surveys that would have taken days on foot now take 20 minutes by air. Scientists at the US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are using UAVs to spy on approaching hurricanes, chart the demise of Arctic sea ice, spot oil spills and steer ships from collisions with whales.
“Being able to understand what’s happening in all parts of the planet is really important to our operations,” says Robbie Hood, who leads NOAA’s program for unmanned aerial systems. “We’ve got satellites, rain gauges, radars. Now we’re looking at UAVs as another observation system. Think of it as a force multiplier for science.”
But even as these high-flying helpers are literally elevating the work of conservation, they remain saddled with some lingering baggage of public perception. It has proven all too easy to confuse the benevolent aerial robots now monitoring habitat degradation and wildlife populations with their more aggressive cousins launching military airstrikes.
“What we’re doing is turning those swords into plowshares,” says Allan. “We’re turning UAVs from military weapons into tools for saving lives.”
Those lives include humans. The front lines of the wildlife wars are now manned on one side by gangs of trained killers, on the other by teams of underpaid and lightly armed rangers who have been trained to save lives rather than waste them.
“It has become an increasingly dangerous occupation to protect wildlife,” says Matt Lewis, who leads WWF’s work on African rhinos, elephants and great apes. “There’s been a proliferation of small arms around the world, especially in Africa. For somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 US dollars you can get a fully functioning AK-47.”
And their owners are quick to use them. Poachers often use impoverished locals for their dirty work, and the desperation that comes with poverty can lead to danger. But even well-financed poachers may not want to risk jail time.
“If they think they’re going to get caught, they’d rather shoot it out,” says Lewis. “And poachers are not the only ones coming into these wilderness areas. These are places where militant insurgents—all kinds of really bad guys—like to go whenever the pressure gets too hot in populated areas. Rangers are the front line of defense, the only people standing in their way.”
Texting with Rhinos
Nothing has better underscored the lopsided odds now facing wildlife’s guardians than the elephant massacre at Dzanga Bai.
Lewis had been there not long before, to witness the incomparable gathering of elephants from the forest, the rumbling and trumpeting of a hundred giants audible from a half mile away.
“It’s one of my personal seven wonders of the world,” he says, “one of the most amazing places on Earth. And to think that somebody took advantage of that tranquility where the elephants felt so secure and trusting. The thought of that number of carcasses littering the ground is just sickening. But you can’t expect a small team of rangers, lightly armed, to stand up to a heavily armed, battle-hardened militia intent on killing people.”
The fear emanating from Dzanga Bai is that the rebels and looters are testing the waters—that the floodgates are poised to open into wildlife’s greatest strongholds. So with the warning of Dzanga Bai, and the grant from Google, teams from WWF have begun ramping up their anti-crime intelligence. They’re testing systems in Nepal, where rhinos and tigers are under the gun, and in Namibia, where there’s an uptick in elephant poaching and trouble looming on the horizon for one of the black rhino’s last bastions.
Namibia stands as a tenuous haven in the escalating rhino war now erupting across the border in South Africa. Between 2006 and 2012, South Africa lost 1,805 rhinos; Namibia lost five. Namibia’s sterling record of protection comes in part from its relative remoteness and ruggedness, as well as its people’s willingness to form the communal conservancies that link thriving wildlife with community income. But with the new era of hyper poaching, the country’s image as inviolate sanctuary has become one of fleeting illusion, says Lewis.
“Namibia is sitting on a gold mine of rhino horns. Once the floodgates open, the flood will come.”
Hence Namibia’s preemptive strike to secure its land, via the air. “With these unmanned aerial vehicles, we can cover things rapidly and readily, particularly at night,” says Allan. “Poachers own the night. They come in with night vision goggles.”
Now, so does WWF. The new aerial watchdogs are easily fitted with infrared sensors that sense living shapes in the dark. There is even potential for equipping the planes with microphones that hear gunshots.
It is a case of new technology building on old. For years rhinos have been roaming with electronic ear tags, bracelets and collars, transmitting their whereabouts and daily habits via satellite or radio signal to receivers in the hands of biologists. These are the same signals now being gathered by antipoaching patrols. But satellite downloads don’t come cheaply or often. One aim of WWF’s new wildlife crime tech project is to complement the expensive collars and satellites with affordable tags that transmit data instantaneously via cellphone tower. If work goes as planned, rhino guardians may soon be receiving alerts of their charges’ locations via text.
The rhino surveillance UAVs also come preprogrammed with a certain familiarity with their targets. Incorporating years of biological data and the bush smarts of wildlife trackers, the UAV knows the rhinos’ favorite trails, foraging spots and watering holes. It knows where the rhinos gravitate to, and when. It knows too that the poachers typically strike shortly after nightfall, under a full moon. The planes home in on the hot zones, the areas and times of greatest vulnerability, when rhinos and poachers are most likely to meet.
“It’s very much a cat and mouse game between poacher and ranger,” says Lewis. “We’re trying to give the rangers the edge.”
Once the enemy is spotted, rangers on the ground scramble to positions between the killers and their quarry. Their mission: to intercept before the shooting starts—to no longer arrive to the aftermath of a massacre, or the day-old tire tracks of the getaway vehicle. The UAVs also sometimes protect by their presence alone. In preliminary tests, suspicious cars have been seen fleeing at the mere sight of the plane overhead.
Despite its high-tech pedigree, one fundamental trait of the conservation UAV is its simplicity. “What you don’t want is these amazingly sophisticated devices requiring a PhD from Cambridge or Harvard to operate,” says Roberts. “You need something park rangers can use on a regular basis. With the grant from Google, we’re working on finding the sweet spot—simple, practical, repeatable, scalable. Where it really works for the local authorities on the ground in these countries is where you can either catch the bad guys in the act or track them back to their syndicate networks.”
And that is where wildlife’s new school of crime tech is ultimately aiming.
"The ability to track poachers quietly at night using infrared technology is incredibly helpful,” says Roberts. “But the real prize is catching the really bad guys running the whole thing.”