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Are Conservation Drones Militarizing Wildlife Parks?

By Denise Phelps on June 5, 2015


Conservation organizations are ahead of other development sectors in incorporating drones into programs. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs or “drones”) are being used in Sumatra to monitor illegal Palm Oil plantations, track boats that are over their fish limits in Belize and find poachers in African wildlife parks. Conservation drones can increase the capacity to monitor these parks and have proven their effectiveness through increased incarceration rates of poachers and the halting of illegal plantation growth.

A War on Poaching

One of the contributing factors to the quick adoption of drones into conservation when compared with other development sectors is the “war on poaching“.

It’s estimated that 100,000 African elephants alone have been killed by poachers in the last three years. Many parks are understaffed and are looking for alternate ways to slow poaching rates, and drones are less difficult to attain than police or military support. Rangers regularly deal with armed incursions into the parks by poachers and drones are a cost effective way to monitor large reserves and increase safety for staff by providing more situational awareness when engaging poachers.

However, the increasing poaching rates and the connection between poaching and terrorism, is serving to perpetuate a military mentality towards park management. For example, The anti-poaching chief in South Africa’s Kruger National Park is a 35-year military veteran and many park rangers go through a military-like training in order to gain employment. This has led to changes in park operations, including using military soldiers to patrol parks.

Countries like Kenya, have also changed legislation that increased penalties for poaching. Daniel Challender and Douglas MacMillan, experts in Conservation Ecology, argue that regulation and enforcement are overwhelmed by the drivers of poaching and trade. They argue that increasing park surveillance is part of the solution, but the economic drivers that lead to the poaching must also be addressed.

Why People Poach: Poverty

Research from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species found that the top indicator for having a high rate of poaching was a high level of poverty. There is a cost to conservation that is often borne by local communities, such as the loss of arable land. Kirk Hamilton says that, “This cost and the lack of benefits, encourages communities to support or harbour poaching activities”

Organized crime rings can make upwards of $30,000 USD for the sale of a single elephant’s ivory. These crime organizations’ middlemen and leaders are removed from the actual poaching and receive legal support to fight cases against them.

The people impacted by these changes are those at the base of the crime networks, people that are often driven to poaching as a means for survival. They receive closer to $50 per elephant and they don’t receive legal support by the crime rings when caught.

Could Drones be a Solution or a Problem?

This disjuncture between conservation and human development has a long history, but the application of conservation drones brings forth many questions in engaging communities in conservation and development programming with UAVs, such as:

  • What are the impacts of the recent military-like drive behind conservation?
  • Do drones feed into this “militarization” perception?
  • What role should and do drones play as tools for conservation?
  • What are the ethical considerations of using drones in conservation project?
  • How can we adapt programs that utilize drone systems to protect wildlife, to also empower communities?

What other questions should we be asking? What might the answers be? Tell us in the comments.

Drones have a huge range of capabilities that can be used to benefit both conservation and development programs. Let us make sure that we are using them in the best possible way.

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Written by
Denise Phelps is an international health communication and ICT4D consultant.
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