Drones descend, target not Talibans but rhino poachers


NATIONAL: (By Yasir Habib Khan)– The deadly and notorious predator, “DRONES”, are on a new mission of mass manhunt but this time they are not after Taliban or Al-Queda in Pakistan but working to help bust rhino poachers in South Africa as these hunters have killed 448 rhinos since the onset of year.

South Africa government has allowed using drones to round up rhino hunters for massive killing endangered race of rhino just to get their horns as there market price is much higher than gold in Asia .  As the demand for rhino horn shoots up due to its usage in medicinal properties, poaching business is at full throttle.

The drone technology has been put on test against the poachers who are forced up with hunting gangs using helicopters, night-vision goggles and high-powered rifles.

The drone itself costs $15,000 (£10,000) and $23,000 with the cost of the camera, ground control equipment and training factored in – roughly equal to one ranger’s annual salary.

“This will do the job of at least 10 rangers on the ground and make the ones you do have more effective,” official in Wildlife department said. “The drone can also work for its money by helping with animal counts and mapping.” In the vast landscapes of the Greater Kruger National Park, even aerial searches can be like looking for a needle in a haystack.

Sources revealed that South Africa’s biggest Kruger National Park is bearing the brunt of rhino poaching. A total of 300 rhinos have been poached in the Park since January 1. A total of 53 rhinos have been poached in North West, 52 in Limpopo, 43 in KwaZulu-Natal, 35 in Mpumalanga, three in Gauteng and two in the Eastern Cape.

Circling 600 feet above the ground, its thermal camera trained on the scrubland below, the drone keeps silent watch for its target.

When a telltale white blur appears on screen, the aircraft will drop closer to earth to confirm the identity of its quarry before summoning armed backup.

The small, lightweight, battery-powered Falcon drones can be launched by hand in minutes and fly over a range of five miles for up to 90 minutes. Fitted with high-resolution infrared cameras, they can pick out elephants, rhinos and lions as well as anyone that might be tracking them.

Their operators use statistical analysis of when and where previous rhino killings took place to direct the UAVs and position the rangers close to poaching “hot spots”.

When suspected hunters are identified, those tracking them can be prepared with the knowledge of how many they are facing and if they are armed. Once arrests are made, they will have video footage to put before the courts.

Those behind the project, which is co-ordinated by the Endangered Wildlife Trust, hope that by using the controversial technology, they can help turn the tide in the battle against poachers and a £6.6 billion wildlife trafficking industry which, it is now claimed, could be fuelling terrorism. In December, the US upgraded wildlife trafficking to a national security threat amid reports poaching helps fund, among others, al-Shabaab militants in Somalia.

In South Africa, home to most of the continent’s rhinos, the war against poachers is being lost. Since 2007, with a growing middle class in China, Vietnam and Thailand buying ground rhino horn to treat ailments including “devil possession” and cancer, rhino deaths have rocketed by 3,000 per cent.

In 2011, 448 South African rhinos were killed. So far this year, 350 have died and it is projected the toll will reach 750 by December.

The country’s flagship national park, the Kruger, has lost more than 50 per cent of its rhinos since 2010. The national army has been sent to help rangers take the poachers on and there are almost daily reports of violent gun battles and mounting human casualties along with the rhinos.

There are now fears that with the army making poaching more difficult in the state-owned section of Kruger, they will step up their activities in the privately-owned conservancies to the west, home to some of the country’s last black rhinos.

When the Falcon drone’s creator Chris Miser arrived at Olifants West conservancy at the foot of the Klein Drakensberg mountains of Limpopo last weekend, he planned to run some simple test flights to get used to the bushy terrain.

These were abandoned when a call came through on Saturday afternoon from a neighbouring reserve that two of their rangers had been shot at by suspected poachers – one taking a bullet in his hand-held radio.

The idea to use drones in anti-poaching is not unique – several have been tested in other parts of South Africa and Kenya. But military technology comes with a price tag, and some governments are nervous about allowing its unrestricted use within their airspace.

Mr Miser has sought to solve this by using civilian materials for the Falcon and making the aircraft short-range. Critically for such remote areas, it can been operated by the average ranger and is easily repairable.

Enter Dr Tom Snitch, a former arms adviser to US President Ronald Reagan and University of Maryland mathematical modeller who also works for the UN’s Wildlife Enforcement Monitoring System.

Just as advertisers target consumers online with products they will like most based on Google searches and their Facebook status updates, Dr Snitch will look at where rhinos like to graze, where they were killed before, the phases of the moon, the weather, the time of day and day of week to determine where and when poachers will strike next.

“We can put all these variables into the computer and come out with algorithms,” he said. “You can’t fly over the whole park but by creating this mathematical model, you can fly over the hot spots and when you see people coming two and a half kilometres out, you have time to get your rangers in position.”

Dr Snitch’s models have previously been used to catch those laying roadside bombs in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as arsonists in US cities. He believes that coupling them with a drone offers a unique solution.

The use of such enterprise in the war against poaching can count on some powerful friends, he adds.

In December, Hillary Clinton, the then US Secretary of State, upgraded wildlife trafficking from a conservation issue to a national security threat. There have been reports that in Africa, poaching helps to fund al Shabaab militants in Somalia, Renamo rebels in Mozambique and Uganda’s Lords Resistance Army.

“Over the past few years wildlife trafficking has become more organised, more lucrative, more widespread, and more dangerous than ever before,” Mrs Clinton said. “We are increasingly seeing wildlife trafficking has serious implications for the security and prosperity of people around the world.”

Last week during a conference at St James’ Palace in London, the Prince of Wales spoke of the parallel tragedy of the loss of the world’s wildlife.

Watched by his son the Duke of Cambridge, whose wife Catherine is expecting a baby in July, he told his audience: “As a father and a soon-to-be grandfather, I find it inconceivable that our children and grandchildren could live in a world bereft of these animals. “Humanity is less than humanity without the rest of creation. Their destruction will diminish us all.”

South Africa’s government is backing the legalization of trade in rhino horns in an effort to stem poaching of the endangered animals.

“South Africa cannot continue to be held hostage by the syndicates slaughtering our rhinos,” Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs Edna Molewa told reporters today in Pretoria, the capital. “The establishment of a well-regulated international trade” could help curb rhino poaching, she said.

At least 448 rhinos have been killed illegally in South Africa this year, with 280 slaughtered in Kruger National Park, a conservation area the size of Israel that borders Mozambique and where the army has been deployed, the Department of Environmental Affairs said in a June 26 statement. The rate of deaths this year is on course to exceed 2012’s record.

South Africa’s government has about 16,437 kilograms (36,237 pounds) of stockpiled rhino horn, while 2,091 kilograms more is in private hands, Fundisile Mketeni, a deputy director-general in the department, told reporters. The government favors a once-off sale of horn derived from rhino fatalities and doesn’t plan to dispose of horn from “illegal activities,” he said.


The animals’ horns sell for more than gold by weight in China and Vietnam, where they are believed by some to cure cancer and boost virility.

Members of the United Nations’ Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora will vote on final approval of the anti-poaching plan in 2016. South Africa’s proposals have the backing of some members of the Southern African Development Community, a 15-nation regional trading bloc, Mketeni said.

U.S. President Barack Obama on July 1 set aside resources to help combat illegal wildlife trafficking, calling it an “international crisis that continues to escalate.” Last year 668 rhinos were poached in South Africa, eight times the number in 2008, according to government statistics. Kruger, which has a 350-kilometer (217-mile) border with Mozambique, is where 72 percent of the killings took place.

“Legalizing the trade in rhino horn needs to be researched in detail, so that the doubters and the advocates fully understand the possible consequences,” Cathy Dean, the London-based director of Save the Rhino International, said in an e-mailed statement. “The one thing we all know is that the current approach isn’t enough. There are fears that 900 to 1,000 rhinos could be killed in South Africa by the end of this year. Tackling the problem needs a whole range of measures.”

South African and Mozambican authorities have agreed to rebuild a fence between the Kruger National Park and Mozambique to deter poachers after the residents of seven affected villages are relocated, Molewa said. Mozambique has secured funding from international donors to carry out the move, she said.

The World Wildlife Fund “remains unconvinced that legal international trade in rhino horn is a feasible approach for rhino conservation at this time,” Jo Shaw, the rhino coordinator for the WWF’s South African unit, said in an e-mailed response to questions. More investment would likely be needed for security and protection of rhinos, should the trade be allowed, she said.

White and black rhinos were brought back from the brink of extinction in South Africa in the 1960s to a stable population of close to 20,000. Most of those are the larger white rhinos with about 75 percent in the Kruger National Park. With fewer than 5,000 black rhinos alive they are classified by the World Wildlife Fund as critically endangered.

“Ironically, the very success of our national conservation effort, which has resulted in over 73 percent of the world’s rhino population being conserved in our country has, in turn, resulted in South Africa being targeted by international criminal rhino poaching syndicates,” Molewa said.


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