Remotely piloted aircraft systems as a rhinoceros anti-poaching tool in Africa

PLoS One. 2014 Jan 8;9(1):e83873. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0083873. eCollection 2014.


Over the last years there has been a massive increase in rhinoceros poaching incidents, with more than two individuals killed per day in South Africa in the first months of 2013. Immediate actions are needed to preserve current populations and the agents involved in their protection are demanding new technologies to increase their efficiency in the field. We assessed the use of remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS) to monitor for poaching activities. We performed 20 flights with 3 types of cameras: visual photo, HD video and thermal video, to test the ability of the systems to detect (a) rhinoceros, (b) people acting as poachers and (c) to do fence surveillance. The study area consisted of several large game farms in KwaZulu-Natal province, South Africa. The targets were better detected at the lowest altitudes, but to operate the plane safely and in a discreet way, altitudes between 100 and 180 m were the most convenient. Open areas facilitated target detection, while forest habitats complicated it. Detectability using visual cameras was higher at morning and midday, but the thermal camera provided the best images in the morning and at night. Considering not only the technical capabilities of the systems but also the poacherś modus operandi and the current control methods, we propose RPAS usage as a tool for surveillance of sensitive areas, for supporting field anti-poaching operations, as a deterrent tool for poachers and as a complementary method for rhinoceros ecology research. Here, we demonstrate that low cost RPAS can be useful for rhinoceros stakeholders for field control procedures. There are, however, important practical limitations that should be considered for their successful and realistic integration in the anti-poaching battle.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aircraft* / economics
  • Animals
  • Conservation of Natural Resources / economics
  • Conservation of Natural Resources / methods*
  • Perissodactyla / physiology*
  • Photography
  • Remote Sensing Technology / instrumentation*
  • Remote Sensing Technology / methods*
  • South Africa
  • Video Recording

Grant support

This study was conducted within the Projects: Aeromab, (Andalusia Government, Project for Excellence, 2007, P07-RNM-03246) and Planet (European Commission 7th FP Grant Agreement 257649) granted to Doñana Biological Station, CSIC. Centre for Wildlife Management (University of Pretoria) and CSIR contributed to the study with their own funds. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.