Elephants need water. So where might poachers go to look for elephants? According to Michael Schaffer, who conducted research on applying a suite of geographical information system (GIS) tools to improve monitoring for elephant poaching, “It makes sense that poaches would exploit [the fact that elephants need water] by looking for elephants in those areas.” However, at the same time, the poachers need roads for quick access into and out of the elephants habitats, so according to the researchers at Penn State, finding high-risk poaching areas was critical.
Investigating Tsavo, a region in southwest Kenya, home to the country’s largest elephant population, the researches sought to understand geographic similarities among poaching locations——nearly 69 percent of poaching instances occurred within 1.5 miles from a road and within 2.5 miles from lakes, rivers or other water features. Elephants routinely travel 20 to 40 miles in a day, so to find the high-risk poaching areas, the researchers proposed that conservation groups employ the use of unmanned aerial vehicles——drones. With the use of drones, they found that more than 85 percent of poaching incidents occurred in areas of open, low shrub or savanna areas, which could then continue to be monitored by drones.
“The idea of using a drone in an area where it’s challenging to do conservation work is coming up more and more because, in the case of Africa, where you’ve got multiple large animals that move long distances day to day, the idea of trying to monitor them and protect them is daunting,” said Joseph Bishop, instructor, John A. Dutton e-Education Institute, Penn State. “Using drones doesn’t cost as much as using a helicopter, and it also keeps people out of danger from being attacked by poachers.” The researchers concluded that this basic approach could be used virtually anywhere.