AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. On the international black market, prices for elephant ivory and rhinoceros horn have reached record highs, and that's pushed wildlife poaching to a fever pitch. Conservationists and governments that profit from wildlife tourism are turning to a high-tech tool to stop the killing: drones. They're doing field tests, and NPR's Christopher Joyce has this story about some early results.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Foreign language spoken)

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: A crowd of wildlife rangers has gathered on a woody hillside in Nepal. A man holds what looks like an overgrown toy airplane in his right hand, arm cocked as if to throw it into the sky.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRONE ENGINE)

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

JOYCE: Which is exactly what he does, letting the propeller take charge and send it skyward. The craft is an unmanned aerial vehicle, also known as a drone, though not the military kind. Its wingspan is about seven feet, and it carries only a video camera. As its electric motor whirrs, the camera films the forest below. It's a test run sponsored and videotaped by the World Wildlife Fund.

MATT LEWIS: It's a cat-and-mouse game when it comes to getting ahead of poachers.

JOYCE: Matt Lewis is a wildlife biologist with WWF. He says poachers are getting more sophisticated.

LEWIS: When poachers are starting to use night vision technology, when poachers are starting to use tranquilizer drugs to silently dart an animal and cut off its horns at night and get out undetected, it's incumbent upon us to find out a better solution to address that.

JOYCE: Lewis says aerial vehicles could tip the odds back in favor of the rangers, so WWF is testing simple, inexpensive ones in Nepal and Namibia, in southwest Africa. Lewis says as the war in Afghanistan winds down, drone manufacturers are looking for new customers. But governments are sensitive about the word drone.

LEWIS: Drone has a very negative context around the world, primarily due to the military use.

JOYCE: But the situation is desperate. In Vietnam, a single rhino horn is now worth a fortune. It's sold as a medicine, even though it's mostly made of keratin, the same stuff as your fingernails. And South Africa is the bank when it comes to rhino horn. Most of the world's rhinos are there, and things are getting out of hand. Kirsty Brebner is a rhino specialist with the Endangered Wildlife Trust in Johannesburg.

KIRSTY BREBNER: Rhino poaching right now is the worst it's ever been. Our rhinos are being absolutely slaughtered.

JOYCE: More than 600 rhinos killed illegally last year out of a total population of 20,000 in South Africa. Brebner says UAVs hold promise. Last month, a sophisticated drone got a weeklong trial there, but it's more than just a flying camera.

BREBNER: It's not just launching it into the African night and hoping that you're going to find something. It's actually doing it with mathematics and some sound science behind it.

JOYCE: Math and science is what a team from the University of Maryland brought to the drones-versus-poachers war in South Africa. They're led by Tom Snitch. Snitch is no wildlife biologist. He's an economist who prefers starched white shirts and business suits to khakis and boots. But Snitch's partners at Maryland use mathematical models to predict behavior. They created a program to help the Pentagon predict where bombers in Iraq and Afghanistan would use IEDs.

TOM SNITCH: And the fact of the matter is you're looking at human behavior - in that case, IED bombers, in our case, poachers.

JOYCE: Last month, Snitch's team took four drones - made in the U.S. by a company called Falcon - to a South African wildlife reserve. The drones carry infrared and video cameras. They fly themselves. But Africa is big, and drones are dumb. That's where the math comes in. The team uses historical records of wildlife movements and poaching to write a computer program that educates the drones.

SNITCH: And you can look at this and say: Where should we position our drones to fly at night to intercept these people before they get to the animals? And more importantly, where can you put the rangers between the rhinos and the poachers?

JOYCE: And in the tests, a Falcon drone successfully tracked rhinos and something more.

SNITCH: We put the drone up, and sure enough, right underneath us was a mother and a calf. They were about 75 meters from a fence line, and we saw a car pull up to the fence line and stopped.

JOYCE: They reported the car to local rangers, though there was no indication they were poachers. Snitch and the wildlife trust's Kirsty Brebner say the trials went well, but they say the ultimate test will be political. If drones catch poachers, will governments prosecute them? Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

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