During an early morning scouting mission, Air Shepherd drone pilots Tom Lautenbach and Gift Kgadima were driving in Hwange, getting a feel for the land that they have been flying their drones over for the past few weeks.
"To our surprise we noticed four extremely large grey legs sticking out of the manmade water trough, which is there to supply clean drinking water," Lautenbach said in an email. "We then realized that the legs were of an elephant."
At first, Lautenbach and Kgadima thought the elephant had been killed by poachers, possibly poisoned with cyanide. It's a big problem, says Otto Werdmuller Von Elgg, the director of Air Shepherd and CEO of UAV and Drone Solutions. Cyanide is used in gold mining so it is readily available in southern Africa. Poachers typically drop a few kilos in a watering hole, where it "poisons everything in sight," says Von Elgg, from large mammals to fish and frogs.
But after a moment, the elephant started thrashing around, trying to free itself. Lautenbach and Kgadima sprang into action. If they hadn't, the elephant "absolutely would have drowned" within a short time, Von Elgg says.
The elephant's head was below the water, but it was able to breathe by extending its trunk above the surface. The drone pilots tied a rope around the bull's foot and tried to drag it out of the water with their vehicle. When that didn't work, the pilots sought help.
Returning with staff from the national park, the larger team tied another rope to the elephant and was able to pull the bull to its feet.
"He was of course exhausted and frightened and was not able to stand for a while," says Lautenbach. "We waited for a bit for the elephant to regain his strength and then we decided to push him out from the one end out to the shallower end, where he could easily walk away, which he did."
Von Elgg says Air Shepherd crews have been using drones to fight poachers in South Africa for about four years, starting in the iconic Kruger National Park. The team uses small, silent drones and often flies at night, so the craft are very hard to detect. Still, word of their use in a particular area tends to spread quickly among poachers' networks, often driving the would-be criminals away.
During the dry season, which is happening now, animals tend to concentrate around watering holes, where they can be sitting ducks for poachers. So Air Shepherd patrols those areas heavily, particularly the watering holes that are closest to villages or easiest for poachers to get to.
And to those who have suggested poachers might follow the drones toward their quarry, Von Elgg says the pilots don't follow animals, they follow people and known poaching routes. "So that is highly unlikely," he says.
UAV and Drone Solutions has been doing conservation work with drones for about four years and supplements its funding by taking on commercial projects, such as surveillance of mines.
"It's incredibly difficult work, but our teams have amazing experiences everyday," says Von Elgg. (Support Air Shepherd.)