Dudley, operator of the Air Shepherd drones, said the drones had been a potentially effective tool to protect elephants and other species that are a pillar of Malawi’s faltering tourism industry.
Since drone operators started to fly three months ago at the park which is surrounded by densely populated settlements, they have scared over 1000 illegal poachers while over 50 arrests have been made and they have also installed more than 60 miles of electric fencing and moved 261 elephants to another safe reserve.
The drones, that are fitted with cameras, video transmitters and telemetry, and with battery changes, can fly for more than eight hours, have been used to chase stray elephants back into the park as well as monitor illegal loggers who infiltrate Liwonde by riverboat at night.
Dudley said the move to fly the drone in the park up to 15 miles away and to operate during the night had crucial advantage in catching the vast majority of poachers active after dark.
With funding from the World Wildlife Fund for Nature, including a $5 million grant from Google, drones are being tested here in the first systematic evaluation of their potential to combat poachers.
Drones have the potential to play a big role in protecting endangered species, with a number of trials being conducted to investigate how small aerial surveillance aircraft can be used to combat poaching.
The team is also using latest artificial intelligence software to quickly identify poachers and animals in drone footage, in an attempt to better protect elephants and rhinos.
Developed by Neurala, the software is being used by the Lindbergh Foundation in its efforts to combat poaching.
It is designed to keep an eye on the video as it is streamed back to researchers from drones in the field and identify animals, vehicles and poachers in real time without any human input.
The software can analyze regular or infrared footage, so works with video taken day or night.
The Lindbergh Foundation will be deploying the technology as part of operation Air Shepherd, which is aimed at protecting elephants and rhinos in southern Africa from poachers . According to the foundation, poachers are trying to get their hands on valuable ivory and rhino horn using crude methods like poisoning the water supply.
It claims elephants and rhinos are at risk of being extinct in just 10 years if current poaching rates continue, and has logged 5,000 hours of drone flight time over the course of 4,000 missions to date.
Liwonde has lost about 50 elephants and two rhinos since 2014 to poachers.
In August 2015, the Malawi Department of National Parks enlisted the help of African Parks, a nonprofit organisation that specialises in rehabilitating struggling protected areas.
Africa is in the midst of a profound poaching crisis: The continent’s elephant population declined by 30 percent from 2007 to 2014, much of it because of poaching. At least 1,338 rhinos were killed for their horns in 2015 alone. Criminals are becoming increasingly militarized in their tactics, and efforts to stop them have had little success.
The drones are also operating in South Africa and Zimbabwe, and will soon expand to Botswana.
Malawi is also contemplating introducing the anti poaching drones in other national parks and reserves now that there is some progress in Liwonde Park.