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Illegal logging and mining are major threats to tropical rain forests in Peru. Yet, authorities often learn about the deforestation only after the damage has been done. At times, the destruction is picked up on satellite images, but some conservationists are looking to keep a closer eye on the forests with low-flying drones. NPR's Jason Beaubien has the story.
JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Carlos Castaneda with the Amazon Basin Conservation Association has a problem. He manages a massive land trust in the Peruvian Amazon called Los Amigos. The problem is that Los Amigos is so big and so remote that it's nearly impossible to keep tabs on it.
CARLOS CASTANEDA: We are now 145,000 hectares. It's like a small country in Europe (laughter).
BEAUBIEN: The conservancy covers more than 550 square miles. It's in the middle of the jungle. There are no paved roads. Castaneda along with five rangers are charged with monitoring it.
CASTANEDA: No, nobody can go inside without our permission. It's not forbidden go in the conservation, but you need permission.
BEAUBIEN: But not everyone asks permission to enter Los Amigos or other protected lands in this part of the Amazon. Illegal gold miners in the area have ripped up tens of thousands of acres of rain forest. Loggers poach mahogany, Spanish cedar and other old-growth trees. Farmers clear-cut public lands to plant crops, and then some deforestation occurs naturally from storms and disease. So to try to get a better sense of what's happening deep inside Los Amigos, Castaneda has just gotten a pair of drones.
(SOUNDBITE OF DRONE BEEPING)
BEAUBIEN: Max Messinger, a biology graduate student from Wake Forest University, is helping set up one of the drones. Messinger and Castaneda are on a dusty road near the Madre de Dios River. Messinger has determined that this straight section of dirt road should make a decent landing strip for the planes.
MAX MESSINGER: So we've got the aircraft out, and we're getting all the equipment put into it - the battery, the camera; getting the camera hooked up so that we can control it while it's in the air.
BEAUBIEN: This aircraft is remarkably simple. The body is a V-shaped slab of white Styrofoam with a propeller sticking out the back. It's about three feet wide and weighs less than five pounds. Even the camera is a thin, consumer-grade Canon. Messinger slides the camera into a slot so that when the drone is flying it can snap pictures of the rain forest below. The plan on this day is to launch the drone on its first test flight.
MESSINGER: Here we go.
BEAUBIEN: The machine races into the air. Messinger levels it off at about 300 feet. On the ground, the drone looks like a cheap toy, but on takeoff, it accelerates rapidly into the air. It banks gracefully from side to side as Messinger checks the controls. On autopilot, it has a range of more than 10 miles. It can be sent out to investigate a trouble spot at specific GPS coordinates or programmed to fly a sweeping pattern over a section of the reserve. There's even an option for a real time video feed. When it's not on autopilot, however, like during this test flight, landing it can be a bit tricky.
MESSINGER: Oh, got it.
BEAUBIEN: The drone skids off the dirt road and hits Messinger in the leg.
MESSINGER: Well, that was a little more speed than I wanted to carry into that landing.
BEAUBIEN: There was no serious damage to either the aircraft or Messinger. Messinger's in Peru to train Castaneda on how to fly the machines. They plan to use the drones to map the Los Amigos reserve and also to check out reports of suspicious activity in the conservancy. Castaneda says the machines have the potential to transform how his association watches over the private conservation area. He cautions, however, that keeping the illegal loggers and miners out is still going to be difficult.
CASTANEDA: They just want to get money. It doesn't matter if they are making the forest like a beach, just sand. It's - they need money and for that they will do everything, even destroy all the forest.
BEAUBIEN: But with the drones, he hopes to at least be able to detect that destruction earlier and have a better chance to stop it. Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Puerto Maldonado, Peru.
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