GIS, Drones Help Protect Elephants From Poachers

By on May 27, 2016

Elephant. (Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Elephants have some of the largest ranges of any animal in Africa.They can routinely travel 20 to 40 miles in a day. Not surprisingly, this makes for tough work when trying to protect them against poachers.

But what if it were possible to pinpoint the high-vulnerability areas and make more efficient patrolling easier? Using a geographic information systems (GIS) approach, researchers from Penn State University set out to test the idea in the Tsavo ecosystem in Kenya.

The system is comprised of a number of parks full of dry and flat savannah and home to Kenya’s largest elephant population. It includes Tsavo East National Park, Tsavo West National Park, Chyulu Hills National Park, Ngai Ndethya National Reserve, Taita Hills Wildlife Sanctuary and the Lumo Wildlife Sanctuary.

The scientists sought to understand geographical similarities among elephant poaching locations, analyzing the features of 156 known locations occurring in the 8,150-square-mile area. Finding high-risk poaching areas is critical because conservation efforts focused on high-value areas are more effective than patrolling entire habitat regions.

What was clear to the researchers is that elephants need water, so poachers exploit that need by searching for the creatures in areas with features like rivers and lakes. But at the same time, the poachers require roads from which to stage their trapping. It was this intersect that the scientists tried to map in the GIS effort, aiming to find statistical evidence of just how important each region was to patrol.

The scientists considered the cross-sections of habitats and areas with high levels of illegal poaching. They found that nearly 69 percent of poaching instances occurred within 1.5 miles from a road and 62 percent occurred within 2.5 miles from lakes, rivers or other water features. And more than 85 percent of poaching incidents occurred in areas of open savannah with low shrubs.

With that information, researchers were able to create a habitat model for elephants with likely access points for poachers.They identified high-risk areas for poaching throughout the region and made recommendations for locations of surveillance or guard stations, which could help conservation agencies optimize their efforts.

For the open areas that are difficult to patrol, they suggest using drones to monitor them more cheaply. A helicopter could cost tens of thousands of dollars a week to run, but drones can fulfill the same mission for a fraction of that. To optimize that idea, the scientists forecast what the most efficient drone flight paths would be to cover locations with the highest risks of elephant poaching.

Using basic GIS techniques and GPS gear, researchers modeled coverage areas that drones with many different camera types could effectively monitor. They also pinpointed the time required to cover areas for each drone in order to help managers choose the best equipment to meet the needs of each region.

Those methods, as well as the habitat analysis completed for the Tsavo ecosystem, can be employed in other regions around the world to help protect threatened wildlife from poachers.

Full results of the GIS effort, including more on methods and results, are published in the journal Tropical Conservation Science.

Top image: Elephant. (Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

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