Conservation drones

Conservation drones with Indlovu Aerial Trust’s Quin Clark

Never underestimate the impact of the 2 am wake-up call. For, in the dead of night, when there are no distractions, re-evaluations take place. In 2015, Quin Clark, then a technical programme manager in the financial sector, woke one morning and decided he did not want to be an armchair conservationist anymore. Sickened by the continued onslaught of poaching in Africa, he wanted to make a difference. So, he quit his job, returned to his homeland of South Africa, completed his FGASA (Field Guides Association of South Africa) and became a trainee pilot of conservation drones, focusing on anti-poaching operations in Zimbabwe and Malawi.

The placement altered his understanding of poaching and introduced him to Tom Lautenbach and Gift Kadima. From this, the NPO Indlovu Aerial Trust (IAT) was born.

“I had pre-conceived ideas of what poaching was about. But, when you get into the field and start meeting the rangers, the conservationists, the ex-poachers etc. you start understanding what is driving this whole thing. Yes, there is Chinese and Vietnamese demand for ivory and rhino horn, but the supply-side drivers in Africa are poverty and food insecurity and that put a whole new paradigm on it for me,” Clark told Conservation Careers.

In many rural African locations, elephants are a pest as they destroy crops. Farmers’ livelihoods can be wiped out, leaving them unable to support their family. As such, if farmers kill an elephant and sell the ivory, not only have they solved the crop raiding problem, but they have earnt money in the process.

“We are speaking to village elders, headmen and subsistence farmers and they are talking about how the crop yields are not working and when the crops do grow they get smashed by the elephants,” Clark said.

Realising law enforcement would never be enough to win the battle, IAT looked at the core issue – food security.

“You have to get the communities who are living within or on the boundaries of the park involved. They need to be direct beneficiaries of conservation. But, whenever there is money changing hands and direct cash injections, there is always a place for mismanagement,” he explained.

To avoid the complications of cash, IAT instead looked at alternative methods to alleviate the conflict to not only deter elephants but also improve crop yield.

Conservation Drones – To bee or not to bee

IAT use technology to mimic nature. Elephants have an intense and ingrained fear of bees. This knowledge has been harnessed in two very different but practical ways by using conservation drones and beehive fences.

For, it was discovered that when conservation drones are flown near elephants, they very quickly leave the area – mid-flight drone propellers have a similar sound to a swarm of African honey bees.

Having shifted the elephants away from the maize fields, IAT will erect beehive fences to keep them away. The final component is for the drone to be used in crop management –  a drone near-infrared (NIR) sensor can detect crop stress 7-to-10 days before the naked eye – allowing the farmers to deal with any crop health issues such as pest infestation, disease or water stress more quickly and efficiently and ultimately, increase yields in the process.

It is a timely initiative –at the start of 2018, the Executive Council of the African Union (AU) officially requested that AU and Member States harness drones for agriculture.

“We believe this will have a direct impact on the levels of poaching. A lot of subsistence farmers look at poaching as an elephant management strategy. We break the poacher support chain by getting the subsistence farmers to see there is an alternative, and we can help them with human-elephant conflict,” he said.

But, starting an NPO in the conservation sector is a daunting task, it is a highly competitive environment and getting financial backing is a never-ending battle.

Conservation drones

Self belief

“You have to develop a hell of a lot of self-belief that what you are doing is going to make a difference. The number of times I woke up at 2 am and thought ‘oh my god what have I done’. And, it can be a lonely road until you start working with people in similar environments,” Clark said.

“To start with you do not have much support. That was a big challenge, but as I met people in conservation I get the validation, so you breathe a little easier and sleep a little bit better,” he added.

For an NPO  to survive, coming up with a strategy to attract funding is vital. Clark used his previous project and programme management skills to develop a two-tiered approach.

The first was to tap into corporate organisations Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) – particularly as NPO can offer tax breaks, making it a mutually beneficial partnership.

“But, if you are going to approach these people they want to see a business plan. They don’t want to go on the ‘warm and fuzzies’ – they want to see your game plan, your approach – so be organised. Do your research, understand what this is going to cost you. You can then present this as a business plan,” Clark advised.

Harnessing technology to get financial backing

Being flexible to the ever-changing landscape of how people donate is also vital. For IAT the second approach focuses on using crowdsourcing to achieve funding online.

Clark believes that financial transparency is the key to success here.

“The general public is starting to become a little bit jaded because they are not quite sure where their money is going to go. But we will make sure we have our first one or two projects under our belt which have been successful, and then we start asking and pitching to the general public. So, we have a track record, and they can see where the money is going,” he said.

If this is the route you chose for your NPO  then it is imperative that your social media and online presence is strong; otherwise you are “dead in the water”, he added.

Share your knowledge

Finally, Clark said he believed it was important not just to be transparent with finances but to be transparent with other NGOs and NPO’s and share the knowledge.

If NGOs work together, conservation has a better chance of success., as such IAT operates on an open source ethos.

“If we find a formula that is effective and works, we want other people to be able to pick up our game plan and run with it. We will share our information, share our knowledge and share our experience, and if we can inspire people in the US, Europe, Australia and Asia by our work, then having a presence in those places will be even more beneficial than just the funding side,” he said.

A more open and welcoming approach would also encourage people to work in the industry, especially as it can be quite daunting to make the jump.

“There are a lot of people who think like me, but don’t know where to start. When I made the jump into conservation, I had no idea how this would work out. Do your research online. It may not happen straight away but the more people you speak to and the more people you network with, opportunities will eventually come -especially if you are dedicated and committed,” he summarised. 

To find out more about Indlovu Ariel Trust here.

Careers Advice, Interviews, Communicator, Project Manager