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Drones keep elephants away from people in Tanzania

April 30, 2017 at 2:13 PM EDT
In the Serengeti region in Tanzania, conflict can arise between humans and the elephants that graze on their crops. The U.S.-based nonprofit RESOLVE is testing a new way to reduce these clashes while protecting both elephants and humans: drones. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Christopher Livesay traveled to Tanzania to learn more about the technique.
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CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: The massive elephant footprints are still visible in Kusekwa Elias’ cornfield. Just outside the Serengeti national park in rural Tanzania, he says an elephant pillaged the field two days earlier.

KUSEKWA ELIAS: There is no animal we hate here more than elephants. The elephants destroy our food. Children sleep hungry. Sometimes you cultivate acres, only to find out the elephants have eaten them all.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: To keep elephants safely apart from people and their crops, park rangers are training with remote-controlled drones a few miles away. It sounds like a swarm of bees, and that’s precisely the idea.

NATHAN HAHN: So we’re trying to turn them around and get them going back. So there’s the matriarch is being vigilant, while the rest leave.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Nathan Hahn is a researcher with the American non-profit “Resolve.” In this training exercise, an elephant stands its ground against the drone. But quickly backs away.

NATHAN HAHN: There they go…

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: For more than two years, Hahn has been studying the use of drones to prevent what’s known as human-elephant conflict, when elephants cross paths with human beings.

NATHAN HAHN: Human-elephant conflict, it’s a big problem anywhere there’s elephants and people coexisting. And it’s very, it’s very tough to deal with. Elephants need a lot of resources and a lot of space to move. And people also need that same space and resources to develop and grow economically. So you get this butting of heads around park boundaries where wildlife is.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: The Serengeti ecosystem in Tanzania is made up of Serengeti national park, and a network of game reserves and wildlife management areas just outside of it. Inside the park, there are clear rules meant to protect both animals and humans: for instance, you can drive only on marked roads and must stay in your vehicle at all times. But just outside the park is another story. Nothing stops animals, including elephants, from wandering into areas where people live.

While the African elephant population has fallen 30 percent over the last decade, the elephant population has increased in the Serengeti, thanks in part to anti-poaching efforts. Since 2006, the number of elephants is up more than 250 percent. At the same time, the human population has also grown, increasing more than 50 percent since 2002.

Julius Keyyu is the director of research at the Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute, a government agency.

JULIUS KEYYU: The increase in human population has resulted in demand for more land for human settlement, for cultivation, for livestock grazing.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: So both people and elephants are fighting over the same natural resources?

JULIUS KEYYU: Natural resources. Because it is becoming scarce, because of climate change. So you see wildlife, people, livestock are sharing water resources.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: And that’s created a greater likelihood of conflict. Farmer Mbesi Ndongo says an elephant nearly killed him a year and a half ago.

MBESI NDONGO: The elephant was hiding in the forest and came suddenly and knocked me down on my head. I picked myself up but it pulled me back with its trunk and threw me. I knew that by the time it would be done with me I would be dead. But I did not want to die without fighting.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: The attack left him with a fractured skull and wrist. He still suffers from pain today and can no longer farm, so he has trouble supporting his family.

MBESI NDONGO: It has really affected my life, because I cannot perform duties that require a lot of energy. All the energy I had is gone.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Veterinarian and animal protection specialist Nick de Souza says destruction caused by elephants can lead people to violently retaliate.

NICK DE SOUZA: This could be a spear, a bow and arrow; slingshots are used a lot.

Unfortunately, the worst of all is the use of poisons.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: de Souza has worked for conservation groups for the past 15 years.

NICK DE SOUZA: The consequences are appalling. You find both dead and dying animals in quite large numbers that cross cut across the whole family spectrum, from tiny babies, to grandmothers.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: There are no reliable numbers on how many elephants people kill in self-defense or retaliation around the world, but conservationists believe the problem is getting worse. De Souza says human-elephant conflict occurs everywhere elephants live in the wild near human settlements, with deadly consequences for both elephants and humans.

From sub-saharan Africa to Indonesia, to India, elephants kill hundreds of people every year.

NICK DE SOUZA: What’s really the challenge is that the population that co-exists with elephants are the most marginalized communities on Earth.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: In those communities, there are a variety of old-fashioned methods for preventing elephant incursions.

Scaring them off with loud noises and flashing lights, as these rural Tanzanians demonstrated. Surrounding crops with fences covered in hot chili oil, which torment elephants’ sensitive trunks. And rangers charging at them with vehicles. Or using guns.

They’ll actually fire live rounds into the air and that’ll sometimes scare the elephants away.

Many of those tactics can put humans dangerously close to an elephant. But wildlife ranger Rainley Mbawala says the newest method — of using drones — is much less risky.

RAINLEY MBAWALA: When you use a gun, sometimes an elephant charges back, or you may fire a gun and end up firing at a villager accidentally. But the drone has no bad effects, because even when the elephant charges, nobody is caught in between.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Over time, elephants often outsmart conflict mitigation tools once they get used to them. But researchers say, so far, elephants haven’t caught onto drones.

The breakthrough came a few years ago when researchers were taking aerial photos of elephants and made a surprising discovery.

NATHAN HAHN: It turns out they’re very scared of the drones. They would run away almost instantly and seem to be very frightened. We’re not sure why. It could be it sounds like a swarm of bees. There’s lots of flashing lights. It’s this big, white object kind of coming at them very closely.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: There was a sort of unintended benefit?

NATHAN HAHN: You think you’re using a drone just to film some elephants, and all of a sudden you’ve discovered this new way to deal with human-elephant conflict.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Hahn and his research group now train Serengeti park rangers to use the drones and collect data to measure their effectiveness.

In 2016, Hahn and Julius Keyyu co-authored a study of 51 instances in which drones were deployed.

JULIUS KEYYU: If it is used properly and properly maneuvered, the drone is 100 percent.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: 100 percent effective.

JULIUS KEYYU: 100 percent effective to flush elephants out of a crop field or, if I’m called with the farmers, that elephants are coming to my farm, to drive them back.

NATHAN HAHN:I just need to land.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Of course, the drones have limitations.

NATHAN HAHN: The wind is too strong!)

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: They don’t work in high winds and rain.

They’re also harder to use at night, when most elephants raid crops. So rangers need to use them in tandem with a strong spotlight.

And drones are of no use if rangers can’t arrive to deploy them, as we saw during a night patrol the rangers allowed us to join. On this night there’s not a single vehicle on hand, so rangers are limited to what they can cover by foot. If a farmer calls to report an elephant threat just a few miles away, they’re on their own.

Serengeti district game officer John Lendoyan oversees the region. He’s not yet convinced that drones can be effective and says that at roughly $800 dollars per drone, he has more pressing priorities.

JOHN LENDOYAN: The issue of human-elephant conflict is sometimes very difficult for us to address because of lack of resources including people, vehicles, and sometimes gas. So implementing these new techniques is difficult.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Lendoyan is focused on educating people to avoid elephant habitats and to appreciate the value they bring to the country’s tourism industry.

JOHN LENDOYAN: The government has tried to create an environment in which villagers can benefit from the conservation process. The daily fees from the parks, and these funds are usually channeled back to the public through development projects.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: The government does pay damages to people who are injured or lose crops because of elephants. But many farmers we met with – including Kusekwa Elias, whose cornfield was pillaged – say elephants are the government’s real priority.

KUSEKWA ELIAS: From the way we see it, elephants are more valuable than humans, since they can destroy our crops and nothing is done.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: For now, Hahn and his group “Resolve” are donating drones to the rangers, though they hope Tanzania will eventually pay for them. Resolve is also working with the government to try and find longer-term solutions.

NATHAN HAHN: It can definitely be described as a reactive solution. But in the end, it’s what’s needed right now. And that’s how we look at drones.

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