Off-the-shelf hobby drones are helping save elephants in Tanzania.


Mike Gaworecki, MongaBay.

Date Published

See link for photos

A new study finds that small unmanned aerial vehicles — also known as UAVs or drones — can help reduce the kinds of human-wildlife conflict that often lead to the deaths of wild elephants.

As it turns out, while elephants are a beloved species the world over, it can be quite difficult to live peacefully alongside of them. From April to July in Tanzania, for instance, elephants wander out of Tarangire and Serengeti National Parks in search of subsistence farm plots, where they feast on maize (corn), watermelon, and sorghum. A wild herd can easily wipe out a maize plot overnight, making it that much more difficult for farmers to feed their families for the rest of the year.

To prevent these conflicts, farmers and rangers drive elephants away from farmland by sneaking up on them and throwing stones or banging drums. Some farmers have also been known to take other, more dangerous measures, such as hurling chili-laced condoms filled with firecrackers at the animals, placing poisoned fruit in their fields, or deliberately looking the other way when gangs of poachers hunt elephants for their ivory.

Elephants don’t deserve all of the blame, of course. People are moving into their traditional ranges and movement corridors and taking up space, water, and food, after all. In certain regions of Africa and across much of the Asiatic elephant’s range, conflicts with humans who have encroached on their ranges is an even bigger threat to the animals than poaching.

But in a paper released this week in the journal Oryx, conservationists detail a potential and somewhat surprising solution to this problem that has been found effective in the African bush. Since late 2014, quadcopter drones have been used by local rangers to safely shepherd elephants away from farms and communities. They don’t like the buzzing sound the drones make, and can thus be driven out of an area where they’ll provoke a backlash without putting any of the animals or any humans at risk.

Researchers with Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit RESOLVE’s Biodiversity and Wildlife Solutions program, the Tanzanian Wildlife Research Institute (TAWIRI), and the Mara Elephant Project recognized drones as a possible new tool to prevent human-elephant conflict, but more testing was required before drones could be proclaimed a safe solution for both wildlife and people.

So the researchers conducted 51 field trials in farmland bordering Tanzania’s Tarangire and Serengeti National Parks, the results of which are summarized in the Oryx paper. They found that rangers using drones that cost about $800 apiece were consistently successful in moving wild elephants out of crops during the day and night.

“We’ve stressed the importance of data collection throughout this project. There is sometimes a tendency to overstate the power of new technologies, and we wanted to fairly assess the utility of the drones for moving elephants out of crops and other areas,” Nathan Hahn, a researcher with RESOLVE’s Biodiversity and Wildlife Solutions program and lead author of the paper, said in a statement. “The results are very positive and show that UAVs can be an effective, flexible way for wildlife managers to deal with human-elephant conflict.”

Some biologists have expressed skepticism that this might be a long-term solution, warning that elephants could become habituated to the sound of the drones, making them useless at moving the animals from crop fields. But according to the study, rangers who have flown over 120 flights in response to calls about elephants intruding on community and farming lands have yet to witness signs of decline in the drones’ efficacy, even when the target is a repeat-offender elephant who has been confronted with drones multiple times.

What’s more, Hahn and team discovered some unintended applications of UAVs. For instance, rangers once used a drone to prod a wounded bull hiding in dense bush to move out into the open, where a veterinary team was able to remove a poisoned arrow lodged in the elephant’s leg.

And while human-elephant conflict is the more prevalent threat in some areas, drones can even help address the poaching crisis. “When we can help farmers move the elephants away, we can build relationships and get them on our side,” Kateto Ollekashe, a ranger who is part of the drone program, said in a statement. “That’s also how we can help stop poaching.”

In the end, human-elephant conflict is not likely to be stopped altogether until larger protected areas and safe corridors are established for elephants. But, in the meantime, this creative use of a new technology and its early adoption by the Tanzanian government can at least allow for more peaceful coexistence between farmers and elephants.

“The greater interaction distance the UAVs provide lends a much-needed safety buffer for our rangers, the farmers, and the elephants,” Angela Mwakatobe, head of research management at TAWIRI and a co-author of the study, said in a statement. “Here is a useful piece of technology we didn’t have in our tool kit one year ago.”