KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA —
Since independence in 1957, Malaysia has been one of Asia’s success stories. Despite rapid economic growth and urbanization, the country remains home to large tracts of pristine rainforest. Incursions by wildlife poachers from Thailand and Vietnam, however, are a growing problem. Conservationists are adopting, and adapting, new technology to help save the country’s endangered species.
Government rangers are on night patrol in Belum Tenegor forest - just 12 men protecting the rare elephants, tigers and bears that inhabit this 4,000-square-kilometer wilderness of northern Malaysia.
“The proportion of elephants here is more female than male because of poaching. They kill the male because they want the tusk. So maybe only 10 to 15 percent are male. We are trying our best to overcome this problem,” said Kadir Hashim is director of state wildlife.
Some of the solutions for conserving Malaysia’s elephants are being developed at the Kuala Lumpur campus of Nottingham University.
Researchers from the government and the British school’s Management and Ecology of Malaysian Elephants
- or MEME project - are refining technologies to support elephant conservation and fight poaching.
With assistance from the conservationdrones.org initiative,
they are even adapting military technologies including remotely piloted drones.
“For this particular model, we aim to have a flying time of around 60 minutes," said research associate Wee-Siong Lim. "And, a range of about 50 kilometers. That should give us enough coverage to look at the elephants’ habitat. Infrared cameras would allow us to penetrate through the tree tops - the canopy and see what is underneath: could it be wildlife, could it be poacher activities.”
But it's is not all plain sailing.
The more successful conservationists are, the more competition there is between wildlife and Malaysia’s growing human population for scarce land and resources.
“Our village lies on the edge of the forest," said Rahim Banun, a community leader. "Safety has improved since an electric fence was erected last year to keep elephants away. But they still try to break in and eat our crops. A few weeks ago, a herd of elephants destroyed this house looking for food. Six children escaped but everything was crushed and caught fire.”
Professor Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz explained how researchers are tracking elephants to help keep villagers safe.
“What we see is an animation of data collected through the GPS satellite collar on the elephants to see where they are moving on the landscape. Technology overall is allowing us to do things that 15 years ago we would not have expected," said Campos-Arceiz.
"We are using GPS collars. We are using camera traps to see what is going on in the forest. We are using drones. Wildlife poaching is an arms race between enforcement forces and the poachers. At the same time we acquire new tools, they do, too. So we need to stay one step ahead of them,” said Campos-Arceiz.
On the Nottingham football field, another drone is prepared for a test flight. With it, the adoption of military technology to protect Malaysian wildlife moves one step closer to reality.