Using drones to save elephants and rhinos could backfire


The Guardian

Date Published

Recent increases in elephant and rhino poaching have led some conservation groups to consider using unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, to catch poachers in the act.

The rush to deploy this surveillance technology is compelling and influenced by narratives that describe the current situation in terms of a war between poachers and conservation staff. However, the reality is far more complicated and using drones for conservation law enforcement could actually make things worse.

There is a common view in the rural areas of many countries that conservationists care more about animals than they do people.

Conservation organisations have recognised that their success depends on overturning this sentiment, which is why they have spent many years strengthening links with local communities and trying to resolve difficult issues, such as access to fuel wood and livestock grazing in protected areas.

Using drones may reduce this support, especially in situations where tensions are already high. This is because, seen through their eyes, drones may be perceived by rural communities as sinister technologies of surveillance or be associated with warfare and civilian casualties. No-one likes being viewed as a potential “conservation terrorist”.

One could argue that alienating these people is a price worth paying to save Africa’s elephants and rhinos but there are several reasons for doubting the value of drones for preventing poaching.

One obvious issue is that this approach is untested and so we need more data before we can assess whether it is effective and should be used widely. More critically, this approach also depends on having ground patrols that can immediately react to the presence of poachers. But this situation is rare in many African countries, where anti-poaching rangers are underpaid and under-resourced.

The focus on drones also ignores the need for an effective policing and judicial system; corrupt officials can aid poachers and arrested people can escape conviction.

This is not to say that new technology has no role to play in conservation. Drones and camera traps are playing an increasingly important part in ecological and conservation monitoring, letting us count tigers in remote rainforests and orang-utans at the tops of trees. But this is exactly why we need to be careful about using this technology to catch conservation law-breakers. At the moment, local people generally support the use of this technology but our worry is that this could change if they feel spied upon.

Instead, a group of us argued in a recent piece for the journal Science that funding for conservation enforcement would be better spent on tried and tested approaches, which are less glamorous but have a proven record of success. This includes increasing park staff numbers, resources and training, developing intelligence networks to catch poachers in the act and identify corrupt officials and strengthening the judicial system.

There are a large number of brave conservationists who have dedicated their lives to protecting Africa’s elephants and rhinos. They are rightly devastated by the current levels of poaching and frustrated by a lack of progress. Thus, it is entirely understandable that some of these people see drones as a self-contained, quick fix for their conservation enforcement problems.

The problem is that the use of drones could backfire. The conservation community needs to consider this carefully because any mistakes could alienate local people and undermine the long-term relationships on which conservation success depends.

So, we need to consider whether each proposed deployment is legal, ethical and likely to have any broader adverse impacts. We also need to create an inclusive approach that adequately involves local people in new projects and so strengthens conservation links rather than destroys them.

• Dr Bob Smith was a signatory to a joint letter on this subject, Biology’s drones: undermined by fear, published in the current issue of Science, and is a senior research fellow at the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology (DICE), University of Kent