Wildlife Air Service spreads its wings

One of the single-engine Cessnas used by the Wildlife Air Service for their marine patrols with The Black Fish. Photo: Marine Air Service.
One of the single-engine Cessnas used by the Wildlife Air Service for their marine patrols with The Black Fish. Photo: Marine Air Service.
Aerial surveillance is a proven and effective technique in tackling wildlife crime, writes Elizabeth Claire Alberts - so the arrival on the scene of a new wildlife organization dedicated to providing air reconnaissance services to frontline environmental defenders couldn't come too soon.
I'm baffled that no one has really done this before. I'm aware of some local conservation groups that use aircraft, but this is really the first time we're bringing it to an international level.

One of the best - and most proven - ways to fight poaching is the collection of hard evidence. Obtaining that evidence, however, can be a tricky business, especially if wildlife crime is happening in remote areas like the open ocean.

That being the case, marine conservationist Wietse Van Der Werf came up with a novel solution: the Wildlife Air Service, an international non-profit organisation that will assist conservation groups by offering aircraft surveillance services for the documentation of illegal activity.

In fact conservationists have often taken to the skies to defend wildlife and protect biodiveristy. For instance, the Kenyan-based David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust uses light aircraft to survey elephant and rhino populations, and to locate poachers' hangouts and shooting platforms.

Drones or UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) have also become an increasingly popular tool amongst conservation groups. As reported this week on The Ecologist, (Satellites, mathematics and drones take down Africa's poachers), they can be a key part of a highly effective strategy to deter poachers for the illegal wildlife trade - and give elephants and rhinos the protection they desperately need.

Dedicated to wildlife surveillance

But according to Van Der Werf, the Wildlife Air Service will be the first international non-profit organisation dedicated to this kind of aerial surveillance. The Wildlife Air Service is already working on sea patrols with The Black Fish, a Europe-based marine conservation organisation founded by Van Der Werf in 2010.

But after that, the Wildlife Air Service will branch out, pursuing partnerships with other non-profit conservation groups around that world in need of aerial surveillance to protect species at risk.

"I'm baffled that no one has really done this before", Van Der Werf says. "I'm aware of some local conservation groups that use aircraft, but this is really the first time we're bringing it to an international level."

And the move is clearly a good one. Once an aerial surveillance regime is in place, together with intelligence systems and rapid response teams that can be called into action at a moment's notice, poachers invariably leave the area within a week.

The trouble is, they just move to new areas that lack surveillance. The obvious answer is, to extend surveillance regimes much more widely. But where are the resources to come from?

Engaging the aviation community

Instead of purchasing a fleet of aircraft and training a permanent set of pilots, the Wildlife Air Service is reaching out to the wider aviation community, asking pilots to donate their time as well as their planes.

I'm baffled that no one has really done this before. I'm aware of some local conservation groups that use aircraft, but this is really the first time we're bringing it to an international level.

Dan Beeden, co-founder and director of the Wildlife Air Service, explains that there's already been a huge amount of interest - even from people who wouldn't identify themselves as conservationists.

"People fly because they love aviation. There's a tremendous buzz and excitement. But when you tell people they're going to be using their aircraft to do things like tackle illegal fishing, it captures people's interests."

As Van Der Werf explains, it is actually preferable to use borrowed aircraft when investigating illegal activity. After all, the less recognisable an aircraft is, the less suspicion it will garner. "If we're investigating criminal [fishing] activity in the Mediterranean, the fishermen might see the aircraft and think it's from the local flying club."

On the flip side, pilots can gain many benefits from volunteering with the Wildlife Air Service. Trainee pilots need to accumulate hours, and licensed pilots need to maintain a certain number of flying hours each year - but this can cost a significant amount of money.

If pilots fly with the Wildlife Air Service, however, their fuel costs will be covered, and pilots will have the unique opportunity to contribute to conservation efforts, says Van Der Werf. "We're asking them to come fly with us, and do two great things at once."

Van Der Werf adds that the Wildlife Air Service may be able to assist long-time volunteers to obtain their pilots' license: "If the organisation's focused on skills, then there's an environment that is about learning and developing as individuals, and about supporting people in their learning. That creates a very powerful community."

Light aircraft vs. drones

So why light aircraft? This may be a question a lot of people want to ask, especially as drones seem to be more cost-effective, more efficient, and a much safer option.

Van der Werf explains that the Wildlife Air Service will use drones in certain circumstances, and that the organisation will be initiating a drone pilot training program.

However, there is a clear advantage of using light aircraft: its ability to fly long distances. "We can patrol hundreds of miles of ocean. But with a drone, we wouldn't be able to do that unless we're the US military, and can invest $500 million into a drone. That's not a reality for us."

Even though operating a light aircraft may cost more than a drone, aircraft is often less expensive than operating a ship. Van Der Werf believes that a small aircraft will use a tenth of the fuel that a ship would use, and may be twenty times as fast. Not only that, but flying over an illegal fishing vessel may allow conservationists to obtain better photographic evidence.

Also some countries impose restrictions on drones. In 2014, the UK's Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) imposed a number of limitations, and while these rules have a clear safety benefit, they've made things difficult for conservationists. For instance, the CAA's current rules state that drones must remain in the operator's "line of sight".

This wouldn't be possible, however, if conservationists were trying to monitor a fishing vessel many miles offshore. In other circumstances, individuals need to seek permission from the CAA before operating a drone.

As Beeden explains, this restriction creates challenges if a drone needs to be flown on short notice: "If someone has informed you of illegal fishing activity, you can't really spend time getting permission. You need to be able to go out quickly. But with an aircraft, you can just jump in and go."

In this sense, light aircraft can be a more practical tool for the Wildlife Air Service, and based on current drone restrictions, it may remain this way for many years to come.

Working with NGOs and governments

In addition to working with conservation groups, Van Der Werf has indicated that he would like the Wildlife Air Service to work closely with governmental bodies - similar to the way The Black Fish currently operates.

In 2013, The Black Fish used drones to document illegal fishing in the southern Italy, and presented their evidence to the authorities. This ultimately led to a Europe-wide ban of driftnets. More recently, Van Der Werf signed an historic agreement with the Italian coastguard on behalf of The Black Fish to combine forces with the coastguard to combat illegal fishing.

"There are often people working in the coastguard or fisheries enforcement who want to do something", Van Der Werf says. "So we always hand our evidence to official enforcers, and they often start official investigations."

More than anything, Van Der Werf and Beeden hope that the Wildlife Air Service will help spread awareness about wildlife poaching through the dissemination of hard evidence. "If people see what was happening, and they can visualise it, most people wouldn't stand for it", Van Der Werf says.

"You have to make it visible. If you can do that, then you can get people's commitment and they feel ownership of the issue, and we may no longer be in the situation we're in now."



More information: the Wildlife Air Service will officially launch this year, but is already conducting patrols with The Black Fish. In the meantime, you can follow them on Twitter and Facebook.

Elizabeth Claire Alberts is a freelance writer and environmental journalist currently based in Sydney, Australia. In April 2015, she's leading a sailing expedition with Pangaea Exploration that focuses on the creation of ecological writing. To learn more about her (and the sailing trip), visit elizabethclairealberts.com.

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