February 2018. 2 months into my working sabbatical. And after a Christmas with family, New Years with friends and an awesome road trip with an epic travel buddy, it really was time to get to work. And hard work it was.
Uncovering The ugly truth about Poaching
Now you don’t hear me complain. The work I’m doing here involves seeing rhinos, driving in a 4x4 on spectacular roads, and sleeping in luxury lodges. Things people spend a good fortune on to experience. If you are lucky enough. And here I was for free, being paid. Thank you Universe!
It was an absolute delight to visit the parks in this way. To be on the 'other side’. To see the work that people put in, and the dedication they bring.There is a very dark side as well though, and it is really sad to hear about the terrible poaching that goes on throughout Africa. And South-Africa is no exception, quite the contrary. Some quick facts that I think are mind boggling.
"30.000 elephants a year are killed for their tusks. That is one every 25 minutes. If you are a slow reader, by the time you finish reading this post, another elephant has been poached. In South-Africa alone, about 1000 rhinos are killed for their horns every year. That is 3 a day."
A rhino horn is made of keratin, that is the same material as our nails. It's useless, yet some people believe it cures cancer, baldness and impotence, and its seen somewhat as a status symbol by the nouveau riche of countries like China and Vietnam.
With Avy, we hope to develop a tool that can be used in the battle against poaching. If implemented with rigour, and in conjunction with many smart technologies we are confident it can tip the scale in favour of those who are working so hard to protect the animals and their environment.
Everybody has the wildest expectations of what drones can do and what they can deliver. And if you are like me, and ever had the chance to control or even just see a DJI Mavic drone or something similar, you cannot be blamed for having sky-high expectations (pun intended). These machines are amazing. And they are incredibly easy to fly. Surely you can track a poacher down, maybe even throw a net, and catch the bad guys like it's a Disney cartoon. Think again.
The Perfect Job on Paper
Drones, or UAVs as is the less Star-Warsie name for them (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle), bring different fields of cutting edge technology together. Highly capable stabilised cameras with infrared sensors, improved battery technology, automated image recognition, autonomous control systems, artificial intelligence, 3D printing and other ever improving production methods. And to make this all work together seamlessly is challenging. Especially in the dusty, bright, hot, mountainous environment of South Africa. Add thermals, gust winds, resource constraints, poor infrastructure, corruption, incompetence and an overkill of good intentions to the mix and you are destined to fail. Or at least crash.
So there I was. Standing amidst an acacia sprinkled Savannah in the north of Limpopo. Me, two engineers and a trailer full of drones. I positioned myself on top of the Land Cruiser to have a clear view of the surroundings. I pay particular attention to the two white rhinos who have been grazing a mere 200 meters away for a while now. Whenever we power on the Deltaquad, a series of motor whirs and battery beeps make the ears of the rhinos turn towards us. A bit later I tell the guys to be aware of the troop of baboons passing by on the other side of the open field in front of us.
And then, after doing several pre-flight checks and waiting to ensure the wind is not picking up, we launch the machine. It lifts up vertically like a helicopter, and then transitions into forward wing borne flight. It’s amazing. It looks so freaking badass. And when it does what it should do it looks too easy. But as I said. T.I.A.
"It was there, in a field filled with giraffes and rhinos, watching a 30.000 euro machine nose dive straight into a rock face, that I decided to quit my job and join this crazy bunch."
We ended up testing the UAV in 4 different places, and talked to as many rangers, park managers and conservationists as possible. We received an awful lot of data to guide us in further development. The engineers went back home, and I was told to enjoy my last few weeks in South Africa before embarking on my new adventure with Avy.