Drones Will Soon Monitor Endangered Animals in Africa

Belgian research team says there are still kinks to work out before drones replace airplane surveillance.

Elephants in Burkina Faso are photographed from a height of 300 meters using a drone.
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Scientists recently completed one of the first unmanned aerial surveys of wildlife in Africa, which could one day lead to endangered animal protection and poacher prevention.

The survey was completed in Burkina Faso's Nazinga Game Ranch, one of the few areas of Africa where the African elephant population is growing, says Cedric Vermeulen, a researcher at Belgium's Gembloux Agro-Bio Tech.

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Vermeulen says drone monitoring has several advantages over typical plane-based surveying: drones are cheaper and can be launched more easily than a plane. But the model the team used, the Gatewing x100 was only able to fly for 40 minutes at a time and its camera couldn't zoom in far enough to see any animals besides elephants.

"We were a little disappointed because we couldn't see antelopes or baboons, but it was good for counting elephants," he says. "But in order for this to be an effective alternative to planes, we have to be able to identify all three."

Drones also offer a security and logistics advantage over plane monitoring, Vermeulen says. In Burkina Faso, fuel used for airplanes is often siphoned out of the plane, and finding someone to fly one can be problematic.

"In this part of Africa, it's difficult to organize a plane," he says. "The idea with drones is that they are less expensive and less dangerous because if they crash, there's no one on them."

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But in order for drones to be truly useful, Vermeulen says the team needs an aircraft that can cover hundreds of kilometers at a time.

Vermeulen's team isn't the only group looking into using unmanned aircraft to monitor endangered wildlife. In December, Google announced it was giving $5 million to the World Wildlife Fund for anti-poaching drones in Africa and Asia. Those drones will be able to track poachers more easily than park rangers located on the ground, according to the WWF.

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