Drones are already playing a role in the conservation of Africa's wildlife, with a number of trials underway exploring how the aircraft can be used as surveillance tools to catch and deter poachers. But a new study suggests that drones can help save elephants not by scaring away would-be hunters, but by scaring away the elephants themselves.

Elephants create problems for rural communities in Tanzania when they leave parklands in search of food like corn and watermelon. The trouble is that the goods aren't free for the taking, they belong to hardworking famers who rely on the crops to feed their families.

This drives the farmers to try and shoo away the animals by throwing stones or banging drums. But their tactics also include more desperate measures like tossing firecrackers, poisoning the crops, and even turning the other way while poaching gangs slaughter the animals for ivory. In some parts of Africa, this kind of conflict with the farmers actually poses more of a threat to the elephants than poaching itself.

But a more peaceful way of dealing with these confrontations presented itself back in 2014, when researchers from Biodiversity and Wildlife Solutions, the Tanzanian Wildlife Research Institute (TAWIRI), and the Mara Elephant Project noticed that the presence of nearby quadcopter unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) caused elephants to flee.

The team proceeded to test this hypothesis across 51 field trials in farmlands along the borders of Tanzania's Tarangire and Serengeti National Parks. It found that the drones, which cost around US$800 apiece, can be used to consistently drive wild elephants out of crops both in daytime and at night. Rangers working in these parks have now used the tactic more than 120 times in response to calls from the community about so-called human-elephant conflicts (HEC). Their research has now been reported in the journal Oryx.

"We've stressed the importance of data collection throughout this project," said lead author Nathan Hahn, from Biodiversity and Wildlife Solutions. "There is sometimes a tendency to overstate the power of new technologies, and we wanted to fairly assess the utility of the drones for moving elephants out of crops and other areas. The results are very positive and show that UAVs can be an effective, flexible way for wildlife managers to deal with human-elephant conflict."

While the elephants may eventually grow accustomed to the buzzing drones and no longer being afraid of them, the researchers say they've seen no signs of this effect taking hold as yet. But they do note that the technique could also prove useful in herding other wildlife, with the rangers using a drone to usher a wounded bull out of thick growth so that vets could tend to its injury.

"The greater interaction distance the UAVs provide lends a much-needed safety buffer for our rangers, the farmers, and the elephants" explained Angela Mwakatobe, head of research management at TAWIRI and co-author on the study. "Here is a useful piece of technology we didn't have in our tool kit one year ago."

The research was published in the journal Oryx.

Source: Cambridge University