Here in the United States, presidential candidate Donald J. Trump likes to talk about building walls. In Malawi, a bull elephant nicknamed Trump likes to tear down fences.
“He’s a bad guy,” says Otto Werdmuller Von Elgg. “He goes along and he puts his tusks under the electric fence and pulls down a few hundred meters of fencing.” That opening allows an entire herd of elephants to cross over the boundary from Liwonde National Park into neighboring villages, where the giant animals eat mangoes and other crops and threaten people. “They cause havoc,” Von Elgg says. Villagers have often needed to shoot elephants in order to protect their families or food supplies.
All of this happens because, despite Africa’s poaching crisis, Liwonde is a one of the few places in Africa where elephants are actually overpopulated. So many elephants live in the 548-square kilometer park that African Parks, the organization that manages it, recently started relocating the animals to a new sanctuary on the other side of the country. The first group of what will ultimately include 500 translocated elephants made the journey this summer. (Some of the elephants to be moved next year will come from nearby Majete Wildlife Reserve.)
Even with hundreds of elephants poised to be moved out of Liwonde, there are still too many of the massive creatures in a relatively small park which is completely surrounded by villages and tasty crops. “That results in constant conflict between the elephants and the humans that live nearby. It’s a recipe for disaster,” says Von Elgg, head of drone operations with Air Shepherd, a program developed by the Charles A. and Anne Morrow Lindbergh Foundation.
Air Shepherd’s team, in partnership with African Parks and funded by WWF, originally came to Liwonde earlier this year expecting to use its drones in anti-poaching operations. Instead they found that their devices have another, very important purpose: preventing human-elephant conflict.
“More and more, the park rangers were using us to fly at night to identify where the elephants were getting through the fence,” Von Elgg says. The drones provided an early warning system that helped to alert people about the impending pachyderms.
Then they went one step further. Air Shepherd’s operators in Liwonde, a husband-and-wife team named Stephan De Necker and Antoinette Dudley, started flying a DJI Phantom quadcopter drone closer and closer to the elephants, which produced immediate results. “The elephants really hate the sound of those things,” Von Elgg says, pointing out that their buzzing rotors are very similar to the noise made by bees, which elephants also hate. “The minute we’re in the air and we get within 20 to 30 meters in altitude, they just start running back into the park.” (By way of contrast, anti-poaching efforts often fly fixed-wing drones at heights where they can’t be heard from the ground.)
The drones, he says, have proven much more effective than other techniques previously used to scare off the elephants, including setting off fireworks and shooting rifles into the air. Now Air Shepherd is flying its drone along the fence line every single evening, sometimes for as long as six hours a night. Von Elgg says they can move a herd as large as 100 elephants just by flying nearby and pushing them away.
“There’s always one or two within a herd that are the Trumps of the pack,” he says. “They do the fence breaking and then everybody runs through. You deal with them effectively and the herd follows. It’s a great way of doing things.”
The program has also proven popular with the local villages. “We’re really getting a big buy-in from the communities,” Von Elgg says. “They can’t believe this little thing can chase this herd of elephants away.” Sometimes the drone operators find themselves surrounded by “a couple of hundred kids in awe of what’s happening.”
Drones like this could prove a valuable solution to ongoing human-elephant conflict, which kills or injures far too many people and pachyderms every year. Statistics on these problems are hard to compile, but India recently estimated that elephants kill about 200 people a year in that country alone, with an unknown number of animals dying in retaliation. News reports from Africa carry stories about elephant conflicts on an almost daily basis. The nonprofit Space for Giants estimates that elephants destroy at least $1 million worth of crops every year, which can be a devastating cost for rural peoples and economies.
With this success at reducing human-elephant conflict under their belts, Air Shepherd plans to expand its program. Von Elgg says drone maker DJI has agreed to donate some additional hardware, and the next step will be to train local rangers to take over operating the drones. “We’re going to empower the rangers and the fence guys so they can fly them themselves,” he says. They’re also extending their anti-poaching efforts, including trying to stop poachers from poisoning watering holes with cyanide.
Of course, elephants are smart and can get habituated to techniques used to stop them. Von Elgg says that hasn’t happened yet with the drones. If the elephants do get more used to the devices, he says they may add the option of dispersing pepper or pepper spray from the drones. “Hopefully then they will have an unpleasant association with the fence and the pepper spray,” he says.
Von Elgg admits that using drones and pepper might seem extreme to some people, but he adds that “it’s better to use pepper spray than have these elephants get shot because they’re in the middle of a village.” And for species as threatened as African elephants, every life saved matters, even that of a troublemaker named Trump.
Previously in Extinction Countdown:
- What do Elephants and Cocaine Have in Common?
- Isn't It Time We Recognize African Elephants as 2 Separate Species?
- Elephants are Worth 76 Times More Alive Than Dead: Report
- What Happens When Forest Elephants Are Wiped Out in an Ecosystem?
- U.S. to Destroy 6 Tons of Confiscated Ivory, Sending Message to Poachers