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Drone Helping to Save Elephants

“Fred” is one of 15 elephants near the Maasai Mara National Reserve fitted with global positioning system devices so they can be tracked to see if they’ve strayed into areas at risk of poaching or human conflict. Illustrates ELEPHANTS-DRONES (category i) by Chris Spillane © 2013, Bloomberg News. Moved Saturday, Oct. 19, 2013. (MUST CREDIT: Mara Elephant Project).

“Fred” is one of 15 elephants near the Maasai Mara National Reserve fitted with global positioning system devices so they can be tracked to see if they’ve strayed into areas at risk of poaching or human conflict. Illustrates ELEPHANTS-DRONES (category i) by Chris Spillane © 2013, Bloomberg News. Moved Saturday, Oct. 19, 2013. (MUST CREDIT: Mara Elephant Project).

Johannesburg — Standing in his flatbed truck, Marc Goss touches “take off” on his iPad 3, and a $300 AR Drone whirs into the air. It’s his latest weapon to fight elephant poachers around Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve.

“It’s an arms race,” said Goss, whose green khaki clothing shields him from thorny acacia branches in the 74,132 acres of savanna he protects. “We’re seeing larger numbers of poachers.”

Besides the almost 2 foot-long drone, Goss and other conservationists use night-vision goggles and Google Earth to halt the decline of Kenya’s wildlife, which helps attract $1 billion a year in tourism. With elephant ivory sold for as much as $1,000 a kilogram in Hong Kong, Kenya faces its most serious poaching threat in almost a quarter of a century, according to the United Nations.

At least 232 elephants have been killed this year through Sept. 30, adding to 384 last year, from a population of 40,000. Demand for illicit ivory from expanding economies such as China and Thailand has doubled since 2007, according to the UN Environment Programme.

Goss’ patch borders the Maasai Mara National Reserve, where semi-nomadic tribesmen known as the Maasai herd their cows. On a warm morning he was in the hills above the village of Aitong. Fifty-five yards away was the body of an elephant, minus her tusks, surrounded by 10 grieving family members.

Poachers had speared the pachyderm in her back. The carcass was the third found in four days, an unusually high number, Goss said. The ivory would be worth more than $8,000 in Asia.

“It’s pretty grim,” Goss said. “It’s an elephant without a face. It’ll be eaten by hyenas now.”

Goss, 28, a Kenyan, initially thought the drones would help mainly by providing aerial footage and tracking poachers armed with rifles, as well as the Maasai, who sometimes kill elephants when they interfere with cattle grazing. He soon discovered the drones could help by frightening the elephants, keeping them out of harm’s way.

“We realized very quickly that the elephants hated the sound of them,” Goss said. “I’m assuming that they think it’s a swarm of bees.”

Goss’ team have put collars with global positioning system devices on 15 elephants so they can be tracked on a computer using Google Earth. That way the animals — who have names such as Fred, Hugo, Polaris and Madde, after Goss’ wife — can be followed to see if they’ve strayed into areas at risk of poaching or human conflict.

Goss hopes to buy 10 more drones and to modify them by adding a mechanism that releases capsaicin, the active component in chili pepper, when elephants stray near dangerous areas. Paint balls loaded with chili pepper are being used in Zambia’s lower Zambezi region to deter elephants from high-risk zones.

“Drones are basically the future of conservation. A drone can do what 50 rangers can do,” said James Hardy, a fourth-generation Kenyan and manager of the Mara North Conservancy. “It’s going to reach a point where drones are on the forefront of poaching. At nighttime we could use it to pick up heat signatures of poachers, maybe a dead elephant if we’re quick enough.”

Poaching blights much of the African continent. In South Africa, home to 90 percent of the world’s rhinos, at least two a day are killed for their horns, which sell more for than gold by weight in China and Vietnam, where they’re falsely believed to cure cancer and boost sexual prowess.

East Africa is a key battleground against the poaching of elephants, whose numbers in Africa are estimated between 419,000 and 650,000, according to the 178-nation Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, better known as Cites.

Elephant populations are stable in Botswana, Tanzania and Zimbabwe, with more than 300,000 roaming southern Africa, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

An African elephant weighs as much as 6 metric tons and can be as long as 25 feet, according to the WWF. Elephants at the San Diego Zoo eat as much as 125 pounds of food a day.

Kenya is proposing stiffer penalties for the slaughter of elephants and rhinos, with fines of as much as $117,000 and 15-year jail terms. The government has deployed paramilitary forces and plans to acquire drones to fight poaching.

The development of new towns and urban sprawl in Kenya is intensifying the conflict between humans and elephants. The UN says the country’s population has more than doubled to about 43.2 million people in the past two decades.

“Kenya very soon will have to make some tough decisions on how to manage the elephant population because they will be at high levels of human-elephant conflict,” said Matthew Lewis, senior program officer of the WWF’s African species conservation program in Washington.