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African officials seek U.S. drones to fight elephant poachers

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Tanzania's storied wildlife reserves could soon get a watchful, winged inhabitant: U.S. drones.

On his visit to the East African nation last month, President Obama discussed the possibility of using unarmed, unmanned aircraft to help overstretched park rangers combat the growing problem of elephant poaching in Tanzania's vast wildlife reserves and national parks, Tanzanian Ambassador to the United States Liberata Mulamula told editors and reporters at The Washington Times this week.

Wildlife groups estimate that 10,000 to 25,000 elephants are killed in Tanzania each year for their ivory tusks and the number of elephants in southern Tanzania has fallen by more than half. Much of the ivory is shipped illegally to Asian markets.

"The extent of poaching is very, very, very high," John Salehe, director of the African Wildlife Foundation's Maasai Steppe, said in a phone interview from Tanzania.

There has been sharp increase in elephant poaching over the past year, he said.

Tanzanian officials say the area that needs to be monitored is vast with too few rangers.

"There is trafficking, but also there is criminality, so we are fighting both," said Mrs. Mulamula. "If we can work together, we can put an end to this."

That is where drones could play a crucial role.

"The American administration is ready to put up funds to help us in areas where we think we can be able to work together and put an end to this trafficking and killings," Mrs. Mulamula said.

"One area, they said, was training [to] get more rangers. There was even suggestions that the U.S. government can help us with these drones."

Mrs. Mulamula said Mr. Obama did not make any commitment to provide drones to Tanzania.

"But this was being said [in the discussions] that this was one of the possibilities," she added.

However, a senior Obama administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, later said the U.S. is not considering providing drones to Tanzania but declined to elaborate on a meeting between Mr. Obama and Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete in Tanzania on July 1.

Right after that meeting, Mr. Obama acknowledged the threat posed by poaching and trafficking of animal parts. Mr. Obama issued an executive order to, in part, help foreign governments tackle the problem.

"[T]his includes additional millions of dollars to help countries across the region build their capacity to meet this challenge, because the entire world has a stake in making sure that we preserve Africa's beauty for future generations," Mr. Obama said.

An official of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also will be assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Dar es Salaam to support the Tanzanian government's efforts to develop a wildlife security strategy.

A State Department official, speaking on background, said the United States is "concerned by the growing involvement of transnational organized crime and armed militias in poaching and the illegal wildlife trade."

"These activities negatively impact economic livelihoods, health, security and the rule of law across the African continent."

Tanzania is not the only African nation where drones have been considered to combat the menace of poaching.

The Ol Pejeta wildlife conservancy in Kenya has teamed up with Airware, a California-based firm, to build drones to protect endangered wildlife, including the northern white rhino, which is hunted for its horn.

"We see the drone's uses in three parts: deterrence, observation and tracking," said Elodie Sampere, a spokeswoman for the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Nanyuki, Kenya.

The drones at Ol Pejeta are still in the test phase, but "just the rumor of an eye in the sky and the noise of it flying overhead will serve to deter potential incidents," Mrs. Sampere said.

The drones also would allow the conservancy to check on the safety of endangered animals and send critical information to rangers about the number of poachers and whether they are armed, she said.

Drones also can track radio-frequency tags on endangered species, allowing rangers to monitor their movements.

Ol Pejeta is looking for "a drone designed for conservation and not just an off-the-shelf ex-military solution," Mrs. Sampere said.

Drones have been used to monitor poachers in other parts of Africa as well, including the Kruger National Park in South Africa.

In December, the World Wildlife Fund received a $5 million grant from Google to develop technological solutions to combat poaching. The project combines the use of drones with animal-tagging technologies and ranger patrols guided by analytical software. The technology will be tested over the three-year grant period in Africa and Asia.

The illegal trade in ivory and rhino horn is driven by markets in Asia, particularly in China and Japan. Large quantities of ivory originating in Tanzania have been seized in the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

"The challenges are enormous, especially because they have that huge market in Asia," Mrs. Mulamula said.

Although international trade in ivory is banned, a one-time sale in 2008 perpetuated a legal market for ivory in China and Japan, according to the African Wildlife Foundation.

The Chinese government has not been cooperative in African efforts to reduce the illegal trade in ivory, said Arend de Haas, of the London-based African Conservation Foundation.

"China should increase law enforcement, coordinate with African governments and consider destroying confiscated ivory stocks to show their commitment to combat the ivory trade," he said.

However, Mrs. Mulamula said the Chinese government is sympathetic to Tanzania's concerns.

Khamis Kagasheki, Tanzania's minister of natural resources and tourism, has been spearheading anti-poaching efforts in his country, but wildlife groups say much more needs to be done.

"The Tanzanian government has not been alert enough [regarding] the rise in elephant poaching in the region and country," Mr. de Haas said.

Tanzanian officials announced in July that more than 1,200 poaching suspects were arrested over a 15-month period that ended in March. It was not clear how many were involved in elephant poaching. Two ivory traders were arrested in July.

Mr. de Haas said official elephant-poaching statistics are lacking.

"Slow political processes and corruption within local security and conservation institutes are major obstacles to quickly implement effective solutions," he said.

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