South African farmer plans to use US drones to protect rhinos
The Guardian in Johannesburg
A rhino farmer in South Africa is planning to use surveillance drones designed for the US military to combat poachers who are driving the animals towards extinction.
Clive Vivier, co-founder of the Zululand rhino reserve in KwaZulu-Natal province, said he had been granted permission by the US Department of State to buy the Arcturus T-20 drone.
He is now seeking clearance from local civil aviation authorities to put 30 of the drones in South African skies.
Radical solutions are needed, he argues, at the end of a year which has seen a record of more than 650 rhinos slaughtered for their horns to meet demand from the Far East.
Vivier believes the true figure may be closer to 1,000, a significant dent in a population of around 20,000.
About 400 rhinos have been killed this year in the world-famous Kruger national park, which spans two million hectares - impossible for a limited number of rangers to guard effectively.
The answer, he believes, is the unmanned Arcturus T-20, which, with a 5.2 metre wingspan, can fly for 16 hours without refuelling at a height of 4,572 metres.
Its lack of noise and infrared camera would be invaluable for spotting poachers at night.
"It can tell whether a man is carrying a shovel or firearm and whether he has his finger on the trigger or not," said Vivier, 65.
"We can see the poacher, but he can't see us. We're good at arresting them when we know where they are. Otherwise it's a needle in a haystack."
Vivier has spent two years in talks with civil aviation officials and is hopeful he will soon get the green light for a six-month trial.
He proposes 10 of the drones for Kruger park and a further 20 for other vulnerable reserves in South Africa.
He estimates each drone would cost roughly US$300,000 to keep in the air for two years, making a total of US$9 million.