Can Drones Save the Elephants?

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Last year alone, 25,000 elephants were slaughtered and their skulls hacked for their tusks.
Bruno Levy/Corbis

This week, 89 African elephants in southern Chad were slaughtered for their ivory tusks, the worst such incident since the killing of 300 elephants a year ago in Cameroon.

To stop the massacre of these stately beasts, conservation groups are fighting poachers with eye-in-the-sky drones. These unmanned aerial vehicles -- introduced with the help of local researchers and Western firms such as Google -- are giving park rangers new tools in the fight against the illegal wildlife trade of not only ivory from elephants and rhinos but also hides from tigers and other big cats.

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The World Wildlife Fund will start testing a new drone surveillance program in Namibia next month that aims to coordinate data from the air and ground to give park rangers an edge over poachers, according to Crawford Allan, director of the Fund’s TRAFFIC North America project.

“It will be a great advantage to protect both wildlife and the rangers,” Allan said. “We will know where the animals are, the (drone) relays the location to ground control, and you can mobilize rangers on the ground to get in between the animals and form a shield. We see this as an umbrella of technology."

Crawford said it's the first time that such technology has been used in the field. It’s a three-year project at two sites in Africa (the second is being negotiated) and another two in Asia. The project is funded by a $5 million grant from Google Global Impact Awards. Eventually the goal is to use cellphone (GSM) technology to connect to the drone flights.

A group called Conservation Drones has also been working with independent researchers at 15 to 20 sites around the globe to help them track wildlife better and develop information that could help them stop poaching. They have worked to monitor rhinos in a national park in Nepal and count orangutan nests in the dense jungles of Sumatra, Indonesia.