As prices and demand increase, so does the illegal killing of rhinos and elephants in sub-Saharan Africa. Now the Kenyan government is hoping to use surveillance drones to combat the increasing problem of poaching.
The Kenyan Wildlife Service (KWS) says the drones would help to cover larger areas in a shorter period of time than rangers on the ground are able to. The aircraft would be more economical, reducing the cost of fuel, wear and tear on vehicles, and feeding of rangers.
Kenya has become a major transportation route for ivory headed for Asian markets from the central and eastern parts of Africa. Criminal gangs kill rhinos for their horns and elephants for their tusks, which are used for medicine and ornaments. Much is exported to Southeast Asia, where demand and prices are high.
The drones are set to be pilot tested in Kenya’s Tsavo National Park ecosystem, one of the largest national parks in the world. It is planned to import the planes, and, although the number and cost are not yet known, KWS Deputy Director of Security Julius Kimani says that funding is needed to pay for them, and hopes that some nonprofit organizations will step up.
New anti-poaching laws were introduced in Kenya in December, 2013, that carry higher penalties, including fines up to 20 million shillings and life imprisonment for killing endangered animals. Conservationists hope the new, tougher laws will deter criminal networks. Earlier laws carried a maximum fine of only 40,000 shillings and prison sentences of 10 years or less.
So far this year over 249 people have been arrested for poaching, and one Chinese man convicted of smuggling ivory was ordered to pay the full fine of 20 million shillings or face up to seven years in jail.
The poaching problem is increasing. Already 51 elephants and 18 rhinos have been killed by poachers in Kenya this year. 302 elephants and 59 rhinos were killed in 2013, up from 384 elephants and 30 rhinos in 2012. 13.5 tons of ivory was seized at port city Mombasa last year.
Using drones would be added to previous technologies used by the KWS to combat elephant and rhino poaching that have included microchips imbedded in animal tusks and horns, aircraft surveillance, and GPS collars that enable them to keep track of endangered species.
South Africa has also been attempting to discourage the purchase of rhino horns by dying them pink, and tinging them with chemicals.
The Kenyan rangers are hampered by a lack of technology, particularly when compared to the abilities of the poachers, who are heavily armed and use such high-tech equipment as night vision goggles that help them avoid rangers and accurately attack their targets. The drone aircraft may be a big step forward in improving the capabilities of the rangers in combating poaching with increased arrests and prosecution.
By Beth A. Balen