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Hobby drones help keep elephants safe from stones, poison, and poachers

Hobby drones have been shown to be effective in preventing human-elephant conflict in Tanzania, where the animals tend to leave the safety of national parks in search of newly grown crops.

It takes a just few hours for a herd of elephants to decimate a subsistence farm, which can be devastating for communities that are already fighting poverty. Farmers often resort to throwing rocks or banging drums to drive off the massive animals. At wit’s end, they may even attempt to poison the elephants or let poachers intervene.

But conservationists have found they can deter the elephants from entering certain regions by deploying hobby drones to scare them off. The sound seems to spook them. A team of trained rangers along the border of Tarangire and Serengeti National Parks in Tanzania have taken the drones (unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs) on over 120 flights with promising results. The research from Resolves’s Biodiversity and Wildlife Solutions program, the Tanzanian Wildlife Research Institute (TAWIRI), and the Mara Elephant Project published a paper describing their work in the journal Oryx.

“We’ve stressed the importance of data collection throughout this project,” lead author Nathan Hahn from Resolve’s Biodiversity and Wildlife Solutions said in a press release. “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.”

One of the biggest benefits of using drones is that the rangers and farmers can stay a safe distance from the elephants, which keeps all involved — both man and beast — safer. Humans don’t have to put themselves in harm’s way and the elephants don’t run the risk of an encounter with a resentful farmer or poacher.

The drone solution may only be temporary though. For one, there’s some concern that the elephants could grow used to the drones and no longer retreat. And the conservationists insist that the conflict will only end when elephants are given larger protected areas and more secure travel corridors. In the meantime, this technology may be the elephants’ best bet for survival.