Hardly a day goes by without some depressing news about species going extinct or on the brink of extinction due to poaching or habitat destruction. These are sad times indeed for those of us who realize what a treasure biodiversity is, and how the loss of it can never be undone. So many unique, wonderful animal and plant species, some of which may have contained cures for many diseases have been irrevocably lost.
Elephants and rhinoceroses in Africa are particularly vulnerable due to their size and because of the high demand for elephant ivory and rhinoceros horn. Various countries and organizations are doing what they can to combat the ivory trade and poaching, yet it continues. It appears to be getting worse. According to experts, in 2013, we lost 96 African elephants a day due to illegal hunting.
This bloodbath continues to go on due lack of protection and corruption. There just aren’t enough park rangers or security personal to prevent all poaching. These days, poachers linked to terrorist organizations are heavily armed and often kill rangers to get to the elephants. Besides this, some locals see elephants as a nuisance.
One approach that I think can help prevent poaching of elephants, rhinos, and other endangered species is a much more effective surveillance system based on unmanned high altitude airships with cameras and sensors located up in the stratosphere. The current system of park rangers or military personal in jeeps or helicopters patrolling wildlife reserves on the lookout for poachers is woefully inadequate. I don’t remember where I first heard of this idea, but it came back to me after reading this article by Joshua A. Krisch: Modern Research Borne on a Relic: Airships That Carry Science Into the Stratosphere
It looks like there is a lot of potential in this area for airships to improve surveillance. Instead of satellites, which are very costly, and not stationary, or airplanes, which are also costly, think of something that is stationed high up in the stratosphere, almost in outer space, monitoring a very large area. Think “stratellites“, instead of “satellites”.
With state-of-the-art camera and detection equipment on board these high altitude airships, it may be easier to monitor the movements of both animals and poachers. Many elephants will have GPS on them to make them easier to track. Obviously, this will need to be coordinated with rangers on the ground or in helicopters to arrest the criminals. Maybe this will also make it easier to conduct an Elephant Census.
This really isn’t so far-fetched. The U.S Navy’s MZ-3A Airship has already been used to monitor and assist cleaning up the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the largest oil spill in history, and was also used for security at the Olympics. Of course, this is a regular airship, not a stratospheric geo-stationary airship. Fortunately, a company called Hyperblimp seems to be on board with the idea of using its airships for preventing poaching, though they specialize in low to mid altitude airships. I really love their idea of using solar energy to power their airships, which could allow them to stay afloat longer and further reduce costs. Aerostar’s HiSentinel high altitude airship appears to be the most promising high altitude airship, and is probably closest to commercialization.
I really do not know exactly how to implement this, who would own or control the airships, or if an organization like Sea Shepherd would be interested or capable of doing this. In the past few years, the World Wildlife Fund has turned to drones and UAVs(unmanned aerial vehicles) to help combat poaching. This approach isn’t exactly the same as using unmanned stratospheric airships, though it’s similar. The airships would be stationed high in the stratosphere at around 60,000 to 70,000 feet(above all weather) for at least a few months, so fewer of them would be needed for monitoring a large area and they may cost less in the long-term(they may even be retrievable and upgradeable). The current WWF approach requires lots of drones and UAVs over smaller areas.
These approaches aren’t necessarily in conflict, and would probably complement each other depending on the situation. It’s great that technology may provide the answer to preventing the extinction of these magnificent creatures.