Drones are no longer restricted to military and government-related operations. What was a $4.4 billion industry in 2018 is expected to exceed $60 billion by 2025 as drone technology experiences a boom in innovation and there’s a rise in the number of people using them for recreation. 

In 2022, drones are being employed in a range of industries. This includes film and video production, leisure, energy, construction and manufacturing, cargo delivery, and agriculture. 

However, in Africa, drones are being employed to fight a unique battle.  

With their rapid adoption across wildlife reserves in Southern Africa over the past decade, drone technology is one of the best tools in the arsenal of conservationists fighting to preserve the diversity of Africa’s wildlife ecosystem.  

Poaching: is the damage already done? 

Over the last decade poaching has become one of the biggest threats to wildlife diversity and is responsible for the population decline of endangered species in Southern Africa. Among the worst affected are pangolins, rhinos, and elephants.  

The global illegal wildlife trade is estimated to be a $23 billion industry. This includes the smuggling of items such as elephant ivory and rhino horns. 

From 2007 until the present day, rhino poaching in South Africa alone rose by 9,000%, according to the Air Shepherd foundation. The foundation estimates that a rhino is slaughtered every 9 to 11 hours and an elephant is killed every 14 minutes.  

The foundation forecasts the extinction of these species within 10 years.  

Today, fewer than 30,000 rhinos are found in the wild, down from a population of 70,000 in 1970, according to estimates. 

The height of the rhino-poaching war in South Africa came between 2014 and 2016 when an average of three rhinos were killed every day, with around 1,200 rhinos poached annually, based on data from Save the Rhino International.  

However, the same data shows that, from 2017, the number of rhinos poached experienced a noticeable decline. Cathy Dean, CEO of Save the Rhino International, stated that in 2020, the frequency of rhino-poaching in South Africa had decreased down to “every 22 hours”. Dean described this as a “much-needed decline since the peak of the poaching crisis”. 

So, have drones contributed to this decline? 

One of the biggest challenges faced by wildlife and conservation reserves is the ability to monitor the whole of the game park or reserve. 

South Africa’s Krugersdorp National Park is one of the largest game reserves in the world with an area of 19,485 km2 (7,523 square miles).  

The sheer size of Krugersdorp – which is approximately 360 km (220 miles) long and has an average width of 65 km (40 miles) – means it is difficult for park rangers to patrol the entire park effectively. Even with 1,000 people, less than a fraction of the park is covered, according to Robert Miller, founder of The Eye Above Anti-Poaching Drone Project in South Africa. 

However, drone technology has shifted the balance of power in the fight against poaching. 

In 2014, Graham Dyer, a former ranger and drone operator in Kruger National Park, patrolled the Pretoriuskop area in Kruger National Park for a period of six weeks with drones. During that period, no killings were recorded while the drones were airborne, compared to the previous month when nine rhinos were killed in poaching attacks. 

The ability to combine visual, thermal, and infrared detection capabilities during low visibility periods is one of the major advantages that drones bring to the table.  

Detecting poachers under the cover of night is a daunting task, and so drones increase the rangers’ response time and ability to detect poachers when it’s dark – this is when up to 80% of all poaching occurs.  

Drones equipped with infrared detectors can detect and distinguish the heating signatures of wild animals and humans during the evening or at night. The drones can also be outfitted with strobe lights, which can be used to pinpoint poachers. 

More advanced drone models are outfitted with magnet detectors and audio device detectors that are used to detect the presence of firearms as well as the rate of fire of the firearm, and thus determine weaponry profiles. 

Drones can also be equipped with sirens which can be used to herd wildlife away from poaching traps. 

While providing stealth and manufactured to produce very little noise during reconnaissance patrols, these drones enable game park patrols to surveil larger areas more effectively over sustained flight periods. 

However, drones do not come cheap. 

The central processing unit of a drone can weigh about 100g. However, the drone’s batteries account for a sizable portion of the drone’s weight. Large game parks require drones with a considerable battery life that can operate for six to eight hours. The prices range from $50,000 to $250,000 or more depending on the drone’s capability. 

Drones hinder poachers' ability to carry out their operations. But Dyer highlights that while drones are the “eyes” of patrol teams, they do not perform the arrests – rangers do. 

Leveling the playing field 

Air Shepherd, which uses drones to protect elephant and rhino species in Africa, deploys a combination of tactics to combat poaching in its regions of operation. 

Initially, the organization receives information from law enforcement of suspected upcoming poaching attacks. Air Shepherd then deploys a camera-equipped drone with image-processing software, operated by a pilot to patrol the suspected area.  

If poachers are detected by the drone, that information is immediately relayed to rangers on the ground, who then proceed to intercept the poachers. 

Drones also offer safety benefits for ranger teams on night patrols. This includes vital information during direct encounters with heavily armed poachers, as well as information about avoiding animal populated areas to lessen the risk to rangers encountering unexpected gunfire or animal attacks in the dark.  

More than 1,000 wildlife rangers have been killed while on duty since 2003, according to Conservation International. 

The battle rages on 

While drones have been effective in conservationists’ fight against poaching, the battle to stamp out the practice rages on. 

There was a big decline in poaching in 2020 with 166 rhinos poached during the first six months of the year, according to South Africa's environment ministry. But this number has increased noticeably over the past two years with 249 rhinos and 259 rhinos poached in the first six months of 2021 and 2022 respectively, according to the ministry. 

South Africa remains home to almost half of the endangered black rhino population in Africa as well as the largest population of white rhinos in the world. Conservationists and wildlife organizations remain on high alert as they continue to boost their anti-poaching actions with more drone and artificial intelligence solutions.