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Poaching of ivory has rocked Africa for many years, leaving thousands of innocent animals killed for their tusks, horns or skins. It’s a horrific trade that has been slowly slipping down the African Savannah towards the South African border.
Recent films such as ‘The Ivory Game‘ highlighted the difficulties rangers face in both the field and abroad, attempting to cull the illegal goods as they are siphoned through Asia and into China to be carved, sold or turned into medicine. Black market values for a full-grown Rhino horn can reach upwards of one million US dollars ($1,000,000). It is well known that this lucrative trade is also used to fund terrorist organizations such as Al-shabaab and Boko Haram, which have ties to ISIS and Al-Qaeda.
More recently, the poaching syndicates have become more sophisticated, militarised and utilising heavy weapons. The weapons are not just for use against the animals – the keepers of the park, the sanctuary heroes are being targeted for standing in the way of the poachers prize. There are many avenues of support, countless funds and donations that serve to protect the majestic animals of Africa; but the problem still persists.
South Africa under siege
A disturbing trend has seen poachers flock to the southern tip of Africa, after elephant numbers in Mozambique halved from almost 20,000 to just 10,000 in a matter of years. Similar reports suggested South African border rangers had killed almost 500 poachers alone, with rangers themselves giving their lives in consecutive years since 2007.
Despite hundreds of “Save the Rhino” organizations operating in Africa alone, the poaching problem worsens and is now inching at the doorstep of Pilanesberg National Park, a wildlife refuge that up until recently have been largely unaffected by rhino poaching. Once wildlife caretakers, the rangers have now been forced to take up arms to defend the black and white rhino from extinction.
With no previous or formal training, the Pilanesberg Rangers are outnumbered and outclassed. Approaching the problem from another angle, popular YouTuber ‘Instructor Zero‘ teamed up with Sig Sauer and the Orion Poaching Prevention Academy to try and level the playing field. In July 2016, the group traveled to South Africa on a training mission in an attempt to preserve the lives of not only the rhinos, but also their sworn protectors – The Pilanesberg Rangers.
Evil rotors or saving grace?
The training brought on board a small film crew to film the series, which focuses on a training camp in the middle of the African Savannah. This is where the rangers battle the constant threat of enemy engagement, the unforgiving terrain and predatory wildlife. The series often shows the amazing beauty of the African country, with much of the footage filmed with a DJI Phantom 3 professional drone.
During the filming of the series, rhinos were often captured on film and monitored via the drone – this made it immediately apparent to the rangers that the filming equipment could in fact aid in the fight against rhino poaching. Not only would this allow them to monitor the location of certain rhinos in hazardous areas, but alert them to nearby poachers in difficult African scrub. When suppressed by enemy fire, the dense brush makes it difficult for rangers to locate poacher positions; the drone could quite possibly aid in many sticky situations.
While the training focused heavily on military tactics and being able to fight against the poachers, the conclusion of the training saw the Funker Tactical team and MediaLodge donate their DJI Phantom 3 drone to monitor poaching activities from the sky. The team then trained the rangers in using the drone, bringing a multi-faceted approach to curbing the South African rhino poachers. With high quality aerial footage of offenders, and a lack of ability to change clothes in the African savannah, rangers can quickly identify poachers at road checkpoints even if they slip away from the scene of the crime.
Davide Bomben, a founding member of the Orion Poaching Prevention Academy, has been operating in the African continent for the past decade and believes that “Conservation without force is only conversation”.
Andrew Jackson, the manager of the Black Rhino Wildlife Trust operating inside Pilanesberg, also echoes this sentiment. “These rhinos don’t belong to us. They belong to our children. These men and women are here day in and day out, spending long nights in isolated outposts, risking their lives for this. This isn’t some feel good ‘adopt a rhino program’…if anything, this is an ‘adopt a fighter program’. This is real help. This is real support. We need this.”
The show was also funded via their GoFundMe page, and highlights the many ongoing challenges of the governments and people that are trying to protect the rhino population from extinction, in defending against the ever-growing problem of poaching in Africa.
The image of drones in security today is often a warped line between good and evil – the benefits of drones for agriculture, film and even replacing dangerous human jobs can sometimes be shadowed by illegal uses, such as spying on celebrities, flying over military bases and attaching explosive payloads for use by ISIS. A drone in the African savannah however, in the right hands, could see Rhino deaths by poachers dramatically decreased and numbers returning to the parks.
Since the filming of the series, one of the rangers trained in the series has been killed and four rhinos poached.
Watch from 5:22 to see the drone in action, or watch directly to go there automatically.