HEC, otherwise known as “human elephant conflict,” is a centuries-old problem responsible for the deaths of untold numbers of elephants. This ongoing battle between African farmers trying to grow crops and hungry elephants foraging for a meal, has motivated conservationists to find solutions for protecting the largest and one of the most intelligent land animals on the planet. Scientists’ most recent effort — Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), frisbee-sized remote controlled quad-helicopters — may provide the answer that researchers have been looking for.
At a time when elephant deaths have hit record numbers, that solution is more than welcome. A recent spike in HEC and poaching are responsible for more than 100,000 elephant deaths in the three-year span between 2010 and 2012, according to a recent analysis published in National Geographic Magazine. This leaves the current elephant population estimate for the African continent at somewhere between 470,000 and 690,000 animals. The Tanzanian government reports that at least 30 elephants are shot and killed each day in their nation.
Tanzania’s Tarangire National Park is the “drone herding” test site for this new approach to HEC resolution. The Mara Elephant Project and RESOLVE, an environmental conflict resolution organization, are the brains and brawn behind the project. Should long-term testing yield consistent positive results, simple, low-cost drone technology could very well save many thousands of elephants’ lives, something that traditional methods of deflecting elephants from human communities have not succeeded in doing.
Back at the training ground, the rangers work on implementing advanced maneuvers
Habitat loss forces elephants into areas where they normally wouldn’t wander, and into farmland where they feed on and ruin crops. Farmers often try to deal with foraging elephants on their own, using scare tactics, but the animals quickly get used to these methods. Nathan Hahn, a research fellow with RESOLVE’s Biodversity and Wildlife Solutions Program (BWS), describes what happens: “When elephants habituate to traditional methods of throwing stones, making noise, or flashing lights, local communities frequently resort to more extreme measures, such as poisoning, trapping and shooting with bows and arrows, which can result in fatal injuries to both elephants and people. HEC pits people against animals and contributes to communities either passively or actively participating in the extermination of elephants.” In some cases, local people react by allowing poaching, or even by supporting it, in order to eliminate elephants seen as economic pests.
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