The Air Shepherd drone program officially launched in South Africa this month, through a partnership between the Lindbergh Foundation, South Africa’s national Peace Parks Foundation, and Ezemvelo KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife. Drone teams are deployed in areas where poaching is known to be most popular. The camera-equipped UAV drones are fixed-wing with multi-rotor airframes, and can fly for about two hours before needing to recharge. Drone-mounted cameras can capture infrared images so that operational teams navigating the drones can see poachers sneaking around at night, when poaching activity peaks.
Once the Air Shepherd drones spot poachers on the ground, ranger teams are deployed to intercept them. Poachers have been known to kill rangers to get their hands on animals that are valuable on the black market, so the drone program is designed to keep rangers informed and prepared, an improvement over patrolling blind in territories where they are vulnerable to being captured or killed. Keeping rangers safe in this way should help build stronger teams to protect the elephants and rhinos that are in danger from poacher activity in the first place.
The testing phase to prepare the Air Shepherd program for official use has demonstrated that poaching stops when drones are in the air, according to the Lindbergh Foundation. “The poaching of wildlife has hit record highs and we have come to a critical juncture where action must be taken,” said John Peterson, chairman of the board of the Lindbergh Foundation. Fortunately, other African countries also see poaching as a huge problem and have reached out to the Foundation with interest in implementing Air Shepherd drones to protect their own wildlife population.