Elephant census not ready for drone technology (Botswana)


John Churu, BizTech Africa

Date Published
Elephants Without Borders, a Botswana conservation project which is bankrolled by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, has shelved the use of drone technology during future elephant census expeditions, citing some complications in their application.   During an interview with Biztechafrica, the Director and Founder of Elephant Without borders, Dr. Mike Chase, said although the technology and methodology “stood the test of time, it was an expensive undertaking.” “This is the best method for estimating the number of elephants, however, conservation funding is very scarce so we can only use drones sparingly and for smaller projects. The drones are however not suitable to fly the length and breadth of northern Botswana.” Among a number of other limitations, Dr. Chase said included the fuel load to fly to northern Botswana, and lack of radar detection by some of the drones which makes it impossible to track other planes and some birds which might be flying in the drone’s path.” Chaser said the other concern was the size of cameras that the drones can carry at any given time which he noted were small and with smaller pixels and were not feasible for large game parks. Chaser recently handed over a book to the minister of Environment Wildlife and Tourism Tshekedi Khama, detailing their findings during a two year elephant census. When completed, the Great Elephant Census (GEC) will provide up to date information on the status of approximately 90% of Africa’s savannah elephants (loxodonta africano), to governments, wildlife authorities, international bodies and the general public at large.   The two-year census project, which kicked off in February 2014, was meant to provide accurate data about the numbers and distribution of the African elephant population, including geographic range, forming an essential baseline that will benefit conservation efforts. The Great Elephant Census is the largest pan-Africa aerial survey since the 1970s to be managed by Elephants Without Borders (EWB). “I’ve spent enough time in Africa to see the impacts of poaching and habitat loss on the continent’s elephant population,” said Allen. “By generating accurate, foundational data about African elephants, I’m hopeful that this project will significantly advance the conservation efforts of this iconic species.” “Two DWNP personnel partnered with EWB during the entire survey and were trained in new aerial survey methods, equipment and analytical skills, enhancing the capacity of the department wildlife monitoring program. “The collaboration extended to satellite collaring elephants in areas where they have not been seen in more than 50 years. The elephant range in Botswana has expanded 405 in the past 10 years,” explained Dr. Chase. Commercial drones are not new, companies have used drones for agriculture spraying in Japan for over 15 years, and there are many companies interested in using drones in viticulture, for example; a Canadian company has modified a drone to resemble a hawk, initially using it to scare away grape-eating birds from vineyards, and they later realized they also could collect useful data on things like insect populations and diseased vines during the flights.