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Heat-seeking drones latest weapon in battle against rhino poachers

With rhino poaching at its highest-ever level in South Africa, conservationists are using new tactics in their fight against those targeting precious wildlife. But it's an uphill battle as poachers, driven by black market demand, continue to kill an average of one rhino every eight hours.

'Drone Fever:' South African conservationists say aerial drones act as a deterrent against poaching

Protecting rhinos in South Africa

7 years ago
Duration 14:07
Conservationists are desperately trying to save the rhinoceros in South Africa, where they are being hunted by poachers for their horns, the CBC's Margret Evans reports. (Warning: Some of the images in this report are disturbing)

As night draped itself across the savanna in South Africa's Kruger National Park, a small round disk twinkling with green lights and sounding like a swarm of bees rose straight up into the sky.

Here, on the tarmac of a small airstrip near Skukuza, the latest in drone technology is being tested out as rangers seek to gain the upper hand against poachers who are slipping into the park and felling an average of three rhinos a day in pursuit of their horns and the riches they will buy.

The little unmanned aerial vehicle shooting about 250 metres into the sky is just one of a number of models that will be tested in a year-long pilot project run by a company called UAV and Drone Solutions.

The idea is to give extra reach and eyes to rangers trying to police 20,000 kilometres of territory often covered in scrubland and offering plenty of places for poachers to hide.

The drones use heat imaging to send pictures back to specially kitted out control vans.

There is even a Canadian connection. An Ottawa based-company called C-Com provides the mobile antennas on top of the vans allowing images to be sent via satellite in real time.

The anti-poaching team at Kruger National Park is now using aerial drones to track poachers. The drones use heat imaging to send pictures to control vans on the ground below. The mobile antennas on the vans that allow the images to be sent via satellite in real time are made by an Ottawa company called C-Com. (Richard Devey/CBC )

"This can make a difference, and it does work," says Rob Hannaford of UAV and Drone Solutions, adding that the company has tested its wares already in the neighbouring province of KwaZulu-Natal.

"Wherever we flew in KZN and we had an aircraft in that particular area there was no poaching," Hannaford says.

"If we moved out of the area, activity started again. So although we never physically caught a poacher … and we never saw a poacher … there was a visible policing deterrent."

'Drone fever'

Still, Hannover admits that to be effective in Kruger, the rangers will have to have multiple teams.

They will also have some work ahead of them convincing the man in charge of Kruger's anti-poaching effort, former South African army General Johan Jooste, someone who conducts his job with military precision (and has a soft spot for country and western music).

I call it 'drone fever'— Maj.-Gen. Johan Jooste 

"I call it drone fever," Jooste says when I ask him about the pilot project.

"Unfortunately whenever they show you a drone power point or a glossy or a video it shows a pipeline or a road or a highway and they say you can even see the numbers on the number plate.

"Now there are no number plates in this bush."

Still, testing out these drones is a sign of just how wide a net the authorities are willing to cast for ideas in the fight against poachers, and maybe an admission they're not winning the war.

The images from the drones are sent via satellite in real time to specially-equipped control vans where the movements of animals and poachers can be monitored. (Margaret Evans/CBC )

"I've fought 14 wars and this is by far the most taxing," said a big burly man named Otch when I visited Jooste at his "operations centre" near the airstrip.

Otch is also a former South African military man drafted by Jooste for this campaign.

"This is the last hope for the rhino," he says, pointing at his old friend.

A bit melodramatic perhaps -- there are plenty of people aside from Jooste trying to save the rhino -- but a war is what it is and there is no doubt the rhino is fighting for its survival as a species.

Brazen poaching

There is a strange elegance to these great beasts as they move through the bush – tank-like, gargantuan -- yet somehow light on their feet.

And they are less aggressive than they appear, making it easier for the poachers to get quite close to them, say conservationists.

To see their carcasses with the faces hacked off is a heart-wrenching sight, all the more so given that the slaughter goes to feed ill-informed notions in countries like China and Vietnam that the horn contains both mystical and medicinal properties.

Former South African army general Johan Jooste now leads the anti-poaching effort at Kruger National Park. He says wildlife reserves like Kruger have become like a "supermarket" for poachers, who are particularly targeting rhinos, whose horns can fetch more than $75, 000 per kilogram on the black market. (Richard Devey/CBC )

There have been some attempts at public awareness and education campaigns, but critics say Asian governments are indifferent to the plight of the rhino.

It's a straight, easy commodity, the same as drugs, firearms...— Police officer JP Van Zyl Roux on illegal wildlife trade 

"Wherever a rhino isn't safe," says JP Van Zyl Roux, a South African police officer specifically assigned to combating the illegal trade in wildlife and endangered species.

"It's a straight, easy commodity, the same as drugs, firearms, endangered species products," he says.

As long as the demand remains high, national parks and private reserves will have to fortify themselves against poaching attacks. It's just too lucrative for criminal gangs.

"You have high-profile, violent criminals who are changing from hijacking and cash-in-transit robberies to rhino horn because the risk of being caught is a lot smaller."

Rhino poachers cut the horns off their prey to sell them on the black market. In the most brutal cases, the rhinos are alive during this painful process. Rhinos are listed on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's Redlist of threatened species, with certain varieties of rhino considered critically endangered. (South Africa National Parks)

"People would go into a game reserve late afternoon, [at] first dark shoot a rhino and have the horns chopped off, into the vehicle and by 2 o'clock tomorrow morning it's in Johannesburg."

Even natural history museums in Europe have been hit by criminal gangs if they have old rhino heads hanging on their walls. It's a mind boggling, globe-straddling trade.

It is also a trade that won't be stopped without greater will on the part of governments, including that of South Africa.

The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is so big it invites all sorts of graft. Van Zyl Roux says the South African government here has paid lip-service to the problem without enacting legislation to deal with it.

Rhino horns can fetch more than $75,000 per kilogram on the black market. The demand is highest in parts of Asia where it's widely-believed the horns, which are made out of keratin, have medicinal properties. (Margaret Evans/CBC)

Some accused poachers, for example, are let out on bail for as little as 300 rand. That's about $30, and an invitation to repeat offend if ever there was one.

In the meantime, South Africa, guardian to 80 per cent of the world's rhinos, is allowing the great beast's numbers to decline to the point where conservationists warn that it could be extinct within a decade.

In fact, one of the biggest indictments of the South African government's record so far is the attempt by some groups to move rhino herds out of the country altogether - drones or no drones -- in a bid to protect the gene pool.

Margaret Evans' documentary on rhino poaching was filmed and edited by Richard Devey.


Margaret Evans

Europe correspondent

Margaret Evans is a correspondent based in the CBC News London bureau. A veteran conflict reporter, Evans has covered civil wars and strife in Angola, Chad and Sudan, as well as the myriad battlefields of the Middle East.


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