Eyes in the sky: Preventing elephant and rhino extinction

Picture this: You plan the trip of a lifetime. You’re headed to South Africa to enjoy a safari experience. You pack your bags, board a plane and fly half way around the world to your destination. You join other travelers on an overland truck driven by a local guide and set out to photograph the elephants and rhinos of the area. You drive to locations where herds are usually seen, but they’re nowhere to be found. They’re gone…forever.

Sounds nightmarish, doesn’t it? Well, according to experts, this could be a reality in a mere ten years’ time. The reason? Poaching. Illegal poaching causes the deaths of 40,000 wild elephants and 1,200 rhinos each year and, unless we do something to stop it now, these magnificent creatures will be extinct in the relative blink of an eye.

A single elephant tusk can be worth up to $75,000 USD and is used for the production of ivory-based trinkets. Global markets driving the demand for ivory include China and the U.S. Rhino horn holds even greater value on the black market, boasting values of up to $500,000 USD. Enthusiasts claim it holds medicinal value and can even cure some cancers, despite there being very little evidence to support these claims.

Many elephants and rhinos live in protected areas, guarded by armed rangers who are trained to take action if they witness illegal activity. While this helps to alleviate the prevalence of poaching, the fact remains that the value of elephant tusks and rhino horn continues to skyrocket and poachers are willing to go to great lengths to acquire them. As such, there are not enough rangers to cover every square acre of protected land and some of these beautiful animals slip through the cracks.

Fortunately, there is a proven solution to this growing problem. A new organization, Air Shepherd, is seeking to put a stop to poaching through the use of special drones, designed to monitor elephant and rhino groups from the sky. The technology even works at night, when poaching increases under the cloak of darkness. The drones use infrared cameras to capture thermal images of elephants, rhinos and poachers. They also feature global positioning systems (GPS) so that individuals monitoring the animal groups can alert rangers to poaching activity and direct them to the location of a threatened herd before a kill or several kills occur.

Image courtesy of: Air Shepherd

Image courtesy of: Air Shepherd

The technology, developed by a team of mathematicians at the University of Maryland, was used to predict where roadside bombs would be placed in Iraq and Afghanistan. It worked. With a 93 per cent accuracy rating, the method is now being used by the Air Shepherd team to anticipate where poachers will be operating. Most poaching takes place between 6:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. During the day, poachers accumulate information on where elephant and rhino herds are located and then, once the sun sets, they move in and operate swiftly and without remorse.

During this window of threat, drones are deployed constantly to ensure the greatest coverage. Once a group of poachers has been identified, the drone sends information back to the mobile ground control centre. From there, drone operators notify nearby rangers who intercept and capture the poachers.

Image courtesy of: Air Shepherd

Image courtesy of: Air Shepherd

Air Shepherd is a non-profit organization and a project of the Lindbergh Foundation, established in 1977. They operate in the Province of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa and several other countries, having witnessed their success rate, have approached them for help. Air Shepherd drones save lives and could very well be the reason that wild elephants and rhinos do not go extinct in the next ten years, but time is rapidly running out.

If you are like me and can’t fathom the idea of living in a world where elephants and rhinos can only be seen behind bars or in a magazine, please donate to this extremely worthy cause. Whether you have $10 or even $1 to spare, every cent counts. To learn more about the organization, check out this video. To help the Air Shepherd team reach their fundraising goal, click here. If you are unable to contribute financially, please share this article and spread the word about Air Shepherd’s important work so that others can do so. These majestic creatures deserve, as much as you and I, to share the planet we call home. Their lives are more valuable than some souvenir or trinket.

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