WASHINGTON _ The exact location of the anti-poaching operation is secret, as is the number of rangers who will be on duty. Also confidential: where the drones will fly as they search out poachers intent on slaying rhinos for their horns _ one killed every 11 hours in South Africa alone. But over the next several days, Tom Snitch thinks that his project, at a private game farm adjoining South Africa’s famed Kruger National Park, will prove that unmanned aerial vehicles can end the scourge of rhinoceros poaching.
Demand for rhino horn has boomed in recent years, with criminal syndicates offering as much as $30,000 a pound for the horns. Poachers already have killed 350 rhinos in South Africa this year; last year, 668 endangered rhinos died for their horns. They’re sold in Asia, particularly in Vietnam, where ground-up horns are touted as a cure for hangovers, cancer and other ailments, and where rising incomes have made the horns accessible to more people and their possession a status symbol. Save the Rhino International, a conservation group, won’t talk about the street value of rhino horn, saying that any mention “stimulates poaching.”
Snitch, who’s on the board of visitors of the College of Computer, Mathematical and Natural Sciences at the University of Maryland, hopes to use predictive technology to deploy the drones. His team will use the same software that helps predict where terrorists might plant bombs and that recently helped nab arsonist suspects accused of torching more than 60 houses on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. Although controversial in their military use, drones have unlimited civilian applications that many hope to deploy in the U.S. in law enforcement, farming and other uses, pending Federal Aviation Administration approval. In Africa, they’ll use small, hand-launched Falcon UAVs that weigh about 12 pounds and have a range of about six miles. Their mathematical modeling, as well as their eyes in the sky, should catch rhino poachers before they act, Snitch said. His team’s goal: Use patterns to anticipate where poachers will be, and then quickly mobilize game wardens to intercept them. They’ll gather information about previous events and plug it into their formula: weather conditions, the number of poachers working when rhinos were killed, how far they are from borders and other facts they think are helpful.
“We look at previous events,” Snitch said. “We statistically re-create the environment of when the incident happened. Was it a full moon? No moon? Was the wind out of the east? Was it raining? What time did it happen? What day of the week? What else was going on? “We start layering in this data. And then you put animal movement patterns on top of it,” he said. “On nights where this happened, where were the rangers deployed? Where do we think these people came from?”
Wildlife groups say they’re eager to deploy the technology to combat poachers, and not merely to “document the demise of nature,” said Carter Roberts, the president of the World Wildlife Fund. “We’re not winning this battle,” Roberts said recently at a conference in Washington that looked at the civilian use of drones. “It’s become a huge crisis, and the bad guys are extremely sophisticated. They have night-vision goggles. They’ve got helicopters. They have all kinds of funding and resources, and we need to up our game to combat what we’re dealing with.”
RYOT NOTE: A rare respite from the U.S.’s use of drones to track and kill terrorist leaders, assassinate its own citizens, or patrol its borders. Here, except for possible objections to the U.S. extending itself extraterritorially, the mobilization of drones seems indisputably good. The World Wildlife Fund also is taking strides to make sure endangered animal species are protected. You can help them preserve our biodiversity by clicking on the gray box alongside this story to learn more, donate and Become the News!