A study published in the journal Oryx finds off-the-shelf drones can be used to guard crops and keep elephants safe along the borders of Tanzanian parks.
A new study finds that low-cost drones have a significant impact in protecting elephants by preventing human-elephant conflict in farmland near Tarangire and Serengeti National Parks in Tanzania. The project, designed by RESOLVE’s Biodiversity and Wildlife Solutions program, in partnership with Tanzanian Wildlife officials and the Mara Elephant Project, works by using the drones to safely shepherd elephants away from farms and communities—where conflict can cause more deaths than poaching.
From April through July, elephants wander out of parks across Tanzania to gorge on maize (corn), watermelon, and sorghum that dot subsistence farm plots. A wild herd can wipe out a maize plot in a single night and leave farmers struggling to feed their families for the rest of the year. Farmers and rangers have to sneak within range of the elephants to throw stones and bang drums to drive them off, or, worse, hurl chili-laced condoms with firecrackers in a futile and often dangerous effort. Angry villagers can also retaliate by provisioning the fields with poisoned fruit or turning a blind eye to poaching gangs targeting the elephants for ivory.
Elephants are not entirely to blame; people are moving into their homelands and traditional movement corridors, planting crops and competing with wildlife for space, water, and food. In certain regions of Africa and across much of the range of the Asiatic elephant, this conflict presents a greater risk to elephants than poaching and has become a high priority for wildlife managers. Now, conservationists may have found an unexpected solution that works in the African bush. Beginning in late 2014, researchers from Biodiversity and Wildlife Solutions, the Tanzanian Wildlife Research Institute (TAWIRI), and the Mara Elephant Project, found that quadcopter unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, a.k.a. drones) make elephants flee. This discovery presented a possible new tool to keep elephants out of high-risk areas, but the technique needed more testing to be proclaimed safe for wildlife and people.
In a paper released in the journal Oryx, the research team reported on 51 field trials in farmland bordering Tarangire and Serengeti National Parks. The trials show that rangers using UAVs have been able to consistently move wild elephants out of crops during the day and night. Results from the flights suggest that the UAVs—which currently cost $800 fully equipped—can aid wildlife managers who regularly respond to human-elephant conflict (HEC) in community areas and croplands.
“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. The results are very positive and show that UAVs can be an effective, flexible way for wildlife managers to deal with human-elephant conflict,” said lead author Nathan Hahn, from Biodiversity and Wildlife Solutions.
Trained ranger teams stationed along the border of these parks have now made over 120 flights in response to calls about elephants on community and farming lands.
“The greater interaction distance the UAVs provide lends a much-needed safety buffer for our rangers, the farmers, and the elephants. Here is a useful piece of technology we didn’t have in our tool kit one year ago” explained Angela Mwakatobe, head of research management at TAWIRI and co-author on the study.
While some biologists warn that elephants may become habituated to the sound of drones and no longer move from crop fields, rangers have not yet noticed signs of this, even among habitual raiders who have “met” the drones multiple times. Results of this work suggest that small drones offer a new way to reduce negative interactions between people and elephants. The UAVs have also revealed unintended applications. In one instance, rangers used a UAV to move a wounded bull out of dense bush into the open so that a veterinary team could remove a poisoned arrow lodged in his leg.
Loving elephants is easy. Living next to them in harmony requires a little creative engineering to negotiate a peace treaty. “It’s good that we can help the communities,” observed ranger Kateto Ollekashe. “When we can help farmers move the elephants away, we can build relationships and get them on our side. That’s also how we can help stop poaching.”
In the end, scientists and wildlife managers agree that this conflict will not be solved until larger protected areas and safe corridors are established for elephant dispersal; thus, it will not be solved overnight. But at least now there is some hope for peaceful coexistence between farmers and elephants, brokered by a creative use of technology and early adoption by the Tanzanian government.
Photo credit: Lori Price Biodiversity and Wildlife Solutions, RESOLVE