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A Long Beach native is trying to save the rhinoceroses and elephants in South Africa — with drones.
Although Tina Pirazzi doesn’t operate the unmanned aerial vehicles, she is director of Air Shepherd, an anti-poaching program of The Lindbergh Foundation. The program’s mission is to intervene in poachers’ attempts to kill the tusked animals, thus stopping them from selling the animals’ ivory on the black market.
All with what could appear to be big model airplanes.
“Not one animal has been lost when we’re flying,” Pirazzi said. “Our niche is to stop the bullets and arrows.”
The program has been testing unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, for about four years in Ezemvelo KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife reserve in the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal. The company went public in February 2016. Since then, they’ve been flying the drones nightly, Pirazzi said, and are expanding their monitored areas.
It’s an important job.
“We lose an elephant every 15 minutes,” Pirazzi said. “About 100,000 between 2010 and 2012 were killed. Elephants in the wild will be gone… The thirst for ivory is obscene. It’s unthinkable that this generation would lose two majestic animals for something as horrible as greed.”
And, 1,175 rhinos were poached in South Africa during 2015, according to Save the Rhino’s website. That number was down from 2014’s number, 1,215, which was a record high. 2015 was the first year for a dip since 2007, when rates began escalating quickly.
People use the tusks in everything from cocktails to musical instruments and more. Horn powder, Pirazzi said, is often added in African drinks and thought to make men more viral.
“I say, ‘If you want that cocktail, grind your own fingernails,’” Pirazzi said.
She also said poachers can sell rhino horns for up to $500,000 apiece on the black market, including China, the U.S. and Vietnam.
“There’s a huge financial advantage,” Pirazzi said.
Besides that, people in Africa don’t like the animals because they trample their crops, which is often their food or business.
“We are working on new technology that would change the livelihood of these people,” Pirazzi said. “The local people need to benefit from this equation for the program to be successful.”
The program has flown about 2,000 missions and has a good track record, Pirazzi said. In one area, up to 19 rhinos were killed monthly before the drones began flying, according to Air Shepherd’s website. The organization claims there have been no deaths in those areas since beginning operations there.
Because of the program’s success, neighboring countries have requested Air Shepherd’s assistance, Pirazzi said. Efforts in those areas will begin when paperwork is cleared.
“There are a lot of hoops to go through when you’re going to fly a drone,” Pirazzi said.
For example, Pirazzi said in South Africa drone operators have to be licensed commercial pilots.
Using infrared lighting for the usual nighttime conditions, the drones spot poachers and animals and notify park rangers, who intervene. If rangers are unable to intervene, Pirazzi said the drones get lower and turn on their lights.
“That scares the bejeezus out of them (poachers),” Pirazzi said. “It’s a psychological deterrent.”
She said the latter tactic isn’t used as often because typically rangers want to catch poachers. Another method, Pirazzi said, is locals hearing about the drones in the area and spreading the news.
The drones have a wingspan of about six feet, Pirazzi said, are nearly silent and can carry daytime and nighttime cameras and GPS, as well as transmit data. They are hand-launched and stay at about 400 feet from the ground. Additionally, they can fly more than 1.5 hours at a time, according to the Air Shepherd website.
Pirazzi mentioned other drone efforts don’t work because the machines are loud and get too close, scaring the animals. Air Shepherd’s don’t, she said.
“We don’t want to stress them (animals) out,” Pirazzi said.
Additionally, the drones are flown remotely, with computers in various parts of the world, Pirazzi said, depending where the flying is. For instance, Air Shepherd’s partner in South Africa is UDS: UAV & Drone Solutions. The aircraft’s cameras and remote operators look for poachers using predictive capabilities to find animals’ and poachers’ behavior patterns. Then, drones are launched in the area poachers likely will arrive.
Hopefully, the drone launching will expand, Pirazzi said, until it’s not needed.
“Everyone benefits from this program,” Pirazzi said.