Black rhino © 123RF
Black rhino © 123RF

Drones deployed to save the black rhino

18 March 2016

Drones have been deployed in South Africa’s Kruger National Park to help combat poaching of the endangered black rhino.

South African company UAV and Drone Solutions is currently flying drones equipped with night vision and conventional cameras over the country's famous national park to help save the animal from possible extinction.

Otto Werdmuller von Elgg, director of UAV and Drone Solutions (UDS), said the company, which is already flying fully operational anti-poaching missions in the KwaZulu-Natal region, had embarked upon a year’s trial in the Kruger National Park in March 2015.

But soon afterwards South Africa’s Civil Aviation Authority announced tighter regulations on unmanned aircraft and flights were temporarily grounded.

Now they are flying operational and test flights in the park again to help monitor rhino populations and catch poachers, Werdmuller von Elgg said. The company is due to undergo an intensive trial in May.

South Africa has by far the world’s largest rhino population but in the last decade the number of animals killed by poachers has escalated alarmingly.

In 2007 just 13 rhino were killed in South Africa. In 2014 1,215 of the animals were killed and in 2015, 749 were killed up to August 27 2015, according to figures compiled by the South African Department of Environmental Affairs.

If rhinos continue to be killed at this rate deaths could overtake the number of births and rhinos could rapidly become extinct, the conservation group Save the Rhino fears.

The horn is mainly sold to Vietnam and China where it is reputed to have healing powers, though there is no scientific evidence to back up this claim.

Werdmuller von Elgg said he set up the company three years ago with his business partner specifically to address rhino poaching.

“I’m an animal lover and I wanted to do something to help,” he said. “It’s an opportunity made in heaven as it can take humans out of the equation.”

Helicopters, increased numbers of guards, and even South Africa’s army have been deployed to protect the rhinos to no avail. Poachers are armed with military weaponry, high-tech equipment and have deep pockets. A rhino horn can be worth up to $500,000.

The company received funding from South Africa’s Peace Parks Foundation, which promotes wildlife conservation and ecotourism. The charity in turn had received donations from the Dutch and Swedish postcode lotteries.

Drones have been used before in the battle against rhino poaching, but there are no hard statistics on their effectiveness. But Werdmuller von Elgg said he hoped to put increasingly modern technology into action in the fight against poaching.

“The way drone technology has changed in the last three years is incredible. The stuff that used to cost millions now costs thousands,” he said.

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