7 min read

Conservationists Have A New Weapon Against Poachers: Drones

During an overnight patrol with the Kasungu National Park Law enforcement team and the Anti-Poaching Unit (APU), ShadowView assisted in a successful operation against an illegal poaching attempt in the park. The poachers were quickly discovered and then observed by the drones while a quick reaction force moved in on the ground. Unfortunately the intruders skipped the border into Zambia evading certain arrest.

"We are limited by our resources," explains APU-leader Matt Destremau. "Tonight we only had five volunteers and four members of the law enforcement team of Kasungu National Park, led by Ndaona Koumanga to run the operation. It wasn't enough to catch up, ambush and arrest the poachers. However the speed and efficiency with which the drones located the poachers proves how effective they are in these circumstances. It looks very promising for our future operations "

It is certainly a tough battle here in the Malawi bush. On our drive to the observation point we witnessed the devastating effect of poaching in this once pristine environment. For two hours we drove through beautiful scenery guided by the African sun. But it was a static scene, only every now and then interrupted by a gust of cold winter wind. All the animals are gone. In an area were you would normally see an abundance of impala or pukus, perhaps the occasional elephant and certainly a diverse variety of birds and small mammals; we didn't see a single animal. Later that night we would find out why.
I was assigned as an observer so that I could communicate with our drone operator Lucian Banitz on the ground. A tough climb to the top of Solonje ended with a very rewarding view.

From the vantage point we could oversee a large part of Kasungu all the way to the Zambian border a few kilometers away. This stunning view was quickly disturbed by the setting sun, with thick columns of smoke everywhere. The larger columns indicate illegal charcoal burning and smaller ones showing campfires of poachers cooking a meal or trying to stay warm in the harsh night.

"The poachers don't hide the fires," tells Matt. "They know it's a large area and the chance that they might get caught is very small. The fires are just too far away for us to be able to intervene." His face barely shows emotion. It's a horrible reality he has had to come to terms with to continue this work without losing hope. "We'll have to catch them another day."

At around 11pm using our night vision binoculars, we see flashlights moving through the bush. They're heading our direction. No time to waste. Matt directs the QRF in a different position and the drones get airborne. Within minutes we have a clear thermal image of poachers walking through the vegetation. The QRF moves in closer and prepares for an oncoming encounter.

The poachers stop. Perhaps they've realized that they're being watched or perhaps they just can't find anything to kill in this empty bush; we can only guess. Minutes pass. Matt is hesitating, wondering whether to fire a warning shot to get a panicked reaction from the poachers. For now it isn't necessary, he says.

The QRF starts moving in, but soon we notice the poachers are heading towards the Zambian border. The distance between the QRF and the poachers is still a few kilometers, a short distance in urban life, but a massive distance when you have to tread carefully with every step.

Our drones keep up with poachers, following their every move, but we have to cancel the surveillance as soon as we confirm that the poachers are crossing the border only a few kilometers away from our position. While the poachers break every law in the book, we can't, forcing us to cancel the pursuit.

"If we had more rangers on the ground we could have set up more ambush points and therefore been able to stop the poachers before they got to the border. We just don't have enough manpower," Matt explains. "On the other hand, we could see how effective the drones were in this challenging area. The image was clear enough to identify a human being. The drones won't stop poaching, but it's definitely a great asset to our operation."

A few hours later the sun wakes up Kasungu. In the bush before us we see a Sable Antelope grazing. "It's rare," says Matt, "I really hope it can stay alive." With mixed feelings we descend to the rest of the team who are waiting for us at the rendezvous point.

At the moment, more elephants are being killed than are being born in Africa. And this is a closely watched species: we barely know the true impact of poaching on other species. But here in Kasungu you can see the devastating effect with your own eyes. It's slowly being stripped of all its animals. Obviously education and working with local communities are key elements in solving the issue, but right now, right at this moment, Kasungu National Park needs the resources for proper law enforcement so they can arrest and prosecute the poachers every single time they dare to enter.

Back at the lodge a rarity: a few elephants pass through the camp. They feel safe around here as they know it's reasonably safe from poachers. The largest land mammal on our planet, an icon in the African bush, is protected here in Kasungu by a handful of dedicated people. There are just a hundred left. Without any further help and funding for the anti-poaching unit you can't stop wondering, for how long?

If you want to support Matt's efforts and the use of drones in Malawi to protect the elephants and all the other wildlife, donate to ShadowView using the hashtag #Kasungu.

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