Drones help save elephants in Kenya

JOHANNESBURG — Standing in his flatbed truck, Marc Goss touches “take off” on his iPad 3 and a $300 AR Drone whirs into the air as his latest weapon to fight elephant poachers around Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve.

“It’s an arms race,” said Goss, whose green khaki clothing shields him from thorny acacia branches in the 74,132 acres of savanna he protects. “We’re seeing larger numbers of poachers.”

Besides the almost 2-foot-long drone, Goss and other conservationists are using night-vision goggles and Google Earth to halt the decline of Kenya’s wildlife, which helps attract $1 billion a year in tourism. With elephant ivory sold for as much as $1,000 a kilogram in Hong Kong, Kenya is facing its most serious threat from poaching in almost a quarter of a century, according to the United Nations.

At least 232 elephants have been killed in the year to Sept. 30, adding to 384 last year from a population of 40,000. Demand for illicit ivory from expanding economies such as China and Thailand has doubled since 2007, according to the UN Environment Programme.

Goss’ patch borders the Maasai Mara National Reserve, where semi-nomadic tribesmen, known as the Maasai, wearing checked-red robes herd their cows. On a warm morning he squints through the bush at a tusk-less elephant carcass surrounded by 10 of its grieving family members in the hills above the village of Aitong.

“It’s pretty grim,” Goss, a 28-year-old Kenyan who manages the Mara Elephant Project, said as he stood 55 yards from the carcass. “It’s an elephant without a face. It’ll be eaten by hyenas now.”

Poachers had speared the pachyderm in her back. Its ivory would be worth more than $8,000 in Asia. The carcass was the third found in four days, an unusually high number, Goss said. One was shot with an automatic rifle and the other animal was also pierced.

When he started using the drones, Goss thought they would help mainly with providing aerial footage of the landscape and tracking poachers armed with rifles and the Maasai who sometimes killed the animals when they interfere with the grazing of their cows. He soon discovered they could help by frightening the elephants, keeping them out of harm’s way.

“We realized very quickly that the elephants hated the sound of them,” said Goss. “I’m assuming that they think it’s a swarm of bees.”

Goss and his team have put collars with global positioning system devices on 15 elephants so they can be tracked on a computer overlaying their paths on Google Earth. That way the animals can be followed to see if they’ve strayed into areas at risk of poaching or human conflict.

Goss hopes to buy 10 more drones and to modify them by adding a mechanism that releases capsaicin, the active component in chili pepper, when elephants stray near dangerous areas. Paint balls loaded with chili pepper are being used in Zambia’s lower Zambezi region to deter elephants from high-risk zones.

“Drones are basically the future of conservation; a drone can do what 50 rangers can do,” said James Hardy, a fourth-generation Kenyan and manager of the Mara North Conservancy. “It’s going to reach a point where drones are on the forefront of poaching. At night time we could use it to pick up heat signatures of poachers, maybe a dead elephant if we’re quick enough.”

Poaching blights much of the African continent. In South Africa, home to 90 percent of the world’s rhinos, at least two are killed a day for their horns, which sell for more than gold by weight in China and Vietnam, where they’re falsely believed to cure cancer and boost sexual prowess. East Africa is a key battleground against the poaching of elephants, whose numbers in Africa are estimated between 419,000 and 650,000, according to the 178-nation Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, better known as Cites.

Elephant populations are stable in Botswana, Tanzania and Zimbabwe, with more than 300,000 roaming southern Africa, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

Kenya is proposing stiffer penalties for the slaughter of elephants and rhinos, with fines of as much as $117,000 and 15-year jail terms. The government has deployed paramilitary forces and plans to acquire drones to fight poaching.

The development of new towns and urban sprawl in Kenya is intensifying the conflict between humans and elephants. The UN says the country’s population has more than doubled to about 43.2 million people in the past two decades.

“Kenya very soon will have to make some tough decisions on how to manage the elephant population because they will be at high levels of human-elephant conflict,” Matthew Lewis, senior program officer of the WWF’s African species conservation program, said by phone from Washington.

Across the Maasai Mara, which means spotted land in Swahili, Calvin Cottar, 49, uses a $116,000 gyro copter to enforce land agreements he made with neighboring Maasai communities. His camp, part of Cheli & Peacock’s safari lodge portfolio, is built on plots he leases from the Maasai for $45-$50 an acre. As part of the deal they won’t graze their cattle on areas that Cottar is trying to conserve.

Later, Cottar sits at a wooden table where a member of the Kenya Wildlife Service recounts the previous evening’s close call. With his G3 rifle leaning against a concrete wall, the ranger eats a lunch of rice and beans as he tells Cottar that he thinks an elephant was shot and wounded for its ivory.

The rangers are planning a night-time operation nearby. Anti-poaching forces only fire on illegal hunters if they have guns, said Cottar, who runs a 1920s colonial-style safari Camp with his wife Louise. “It could have been poachers so now we’re setting a trap for them,” said Cottar, who hunted game in Tanzania in the 1980s. “If they see someone with a gun, those rangers will shoot them. If they’re without a gun, they’ll chase them.”

The unmanned aerial vehicles not only track poachers, but can be used to scare elephants out of harm’s way.

Elephants understand human gestures

African elephants really get the point — the finger point that is.

At least that’s the conclusion of a study published in the journal Current Biology that examined the behavior of 11 pachyderms who were pointed in the direction of hidden snacks.

According to study author Richard Byrne, a professor of evolutionary psychology at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, African elephants will investigate the contents of a container 68 percent of the time if a human points to it.

By comparison, a 12-month-old human will check out the indicated container 73 percent of the time.

Study authors experimented with a group of African elephants at a wildlife research and rehabilitation center in Zimbabwe. The test subjects were placed in front of two buckets, one of which contained a snack. A human experimenter would stand between the buckets and point to the one that had the treat. (The elephants could not see into the buckets, and controls were conducted to ensure that the animals weren’t simply sniffing out the treats.)

“Our results show that elephants spontaneously attend to and correctly interpret human ... gestures without extensive prior learning opportunities — the only nonhuman species so far to show this ability,” wrote Byrne and his graduate student co-author, Anna Smet.

Though domesticated cats, goats, horses and dogs especially can pick up on human cues such as pointing, it remains a topic of great debate on just why this happens.

While some argue that these traits evolved because of close interaction with humans over the centuries, others suggest it may be an innate ability of group-living animals.

Those who support the latter case argue that the ability to pick up on the directions or cues of others would be helpful to animals that either hunt or try to avoid predators as a pack or herd.

The Current Biology study appears to support that view.

“We suggest that the most plausible account of our elephant’s ability to interpret even subtle human pointing gestures as communicative is that human pointing ... taps into elephants’ natural communication system,” the authors wrote.

— Los Angeles Times

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