Drones to combat rhino poaching
Government will be upping its "technological game" in the fight against rhino poaching. Technologies included are the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, and helicopters with night-flying capabilities.
Minister of environmental affairs Edna Molewa said at a press conference yesterday that, while the Department of Environmental Affairs' (DEA's) anti-poaching efforts included traditional policing strategies, other methods, such as the use of technology, are also a major focus.
The number of rhinos lost to poachers this year was 393 as of the end of last month; at the same time last year the figure was 331.
South African National Parks (SANParks) is piloting and evaluating drones as instruments in rhino protection efforts in the Kruger National Park (KNP) under a range of operational conditions, said Molewa. The project is being carried out in conjunction with the SA National Defence Force and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research.
SANParks announced in March it is evaluating using the drones for a one-year trial to work out whether they can be used to gather surveillance and intelligence around rhino poaching. The parks body explained the craft will support rangers on the ground, helping them identify areas of poaching activity any time of the day or night.
The parks body has engaged with SA's Civil Aviation Authority, which previously said the use of drones is illegal locally.
The use of drones is part of the KNP's "air mobility capacity", which was established in 2014 after a funding grant of R254.8 million. Some funding went towards the purchase of an Airbus AS350 B3e helicopter, said Molewa. The Howard G Buffet Foundation then granted SANParks an additional R37.7 million to purchase a second Airbus AS350 B3e helicopter with night-flying capability.
"In addition to increasing current flight crew capability of flying at night, the new helicopter is expected to improve response time in dealing with contacts and other incidents in the park. Just recently, the helicopter assisted in a dramatic pre-dusk swoop inside the KNP that netted four suspected poachers as well as a range of poaching equipment," explained Molewa.
The department said it hopes to grow rhino populations to at least 20 400 white rhino in SA by 2020. SANParks conducted a survey last year in the KNP and found there was an estimated population of 8 001 to 9 290 white rhino in the park, lower than the estimated 8 400 to 9 600 population of the 2013 survey.