World Wildlife Federation turns to drones in bid to tackle poaching

The WWF's first foray into UAV technology in Nepal last year

The World Wildlife Fund is turning to unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in a bid to tackle an upsurge in illegal poaching of rhinos, elephants and tigers carried out by increasingly sophisticated and well-equipped cartels. The WWF provided two hand-launchable UAVs to the government of Nepal in 2012. In December, Google awarded the organization $5 million to develop more advanced UAV systems. It is hoped that these systems will reduce the poaching of endangered mammals and save the lives of the park rangers assigned to protect them. Ars spoke to WWF’s Crawford Allan to learn more the UAV system, dubbed SMART, that is now in development.

A recent rise in rhino poaching is thought to have been fueled by increasing demand in Vietnam, where, like China, rhino horn is prized—with little to no supporting evidence—as a medical treatment for a host of diseases and conditions including cancer (though not, as is sometimes assumed in the West, impotence).

Much of Vietnam’s rhino horn is supplied from South Africa, where rhino poaching is at an all-time high. A Reuters report from December of last year put its 2012 toll as of mid-December at 633, up from the previous record of 448 in 2011 and from a “mere handful” a decade ago. According to a release put out by South Africa’s Environmental Affairs Department, the count for 2013 is already 102.

Elephant poaching has followed a similar upward trajectory in recent years. It’s thought that African elephants are poached in tens of thousands annually to meet China’s appetite for ivory. If tiger poaching tends to deal in smaller numbers, this merely reflects that there are so few left. The WWF estimates that 3,200 remain in the wild.

Rhino horns and elephant tusks have an extremely high street value, typically in the tens of thousands of dollars. Such money buys serious equipment at the source of the supply chain. In Africa, poachers often bear automatic arms and high-tech equipment, including night vision, while rangers are equipped with rifles or carbines and run the risk of ambush or running headlong into a lion pride. “They’re outgunned right now—they need some rapid support,” Allan told Ars, adding that an average of one ranger is killed per week on the continent. The WWF is now turning to UAVs to level the technological playing field.

About a year ago, in a joint-program with, the WWF provided Nepalese authorities with two hobbyist FPV (first-person view) Raptor UAVs equipped with GPS and day-vision cameras to deter poaching of rhinos, elephants and tigers in the country’s national parks.

Getting SMART about poaching

With the grant money provided by Google over the course of three years, the WWF intends to expand its UAV operations, both technologically and geographically. To this end, the WWF is developing SMART—a marriage of UAVs, sensors, and ..