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Amid All the Death and Destruction, Is There Any Noble Purpose for US Drone Technology?

Pilotless aircraft called on to help save nearly extinct White Rhinos

Beth Brogan, staff writer

A white rhino. (Photograph: Thomas Hall /Getty Images/Flickr RF)

There is no single use for unmanned aerial drones that could supplant all the damage they've caused in the hands of the US military and its intelligence services.

The death and destruction caused by the Pentagon and CIA's armed drones in recent years has sparked outrage in countries around the world.

The death of many innocent civilians, often caught in the cross-hairs of these weapons, have given rise to wide fears that this new era of remote-controlled warfare portends a future of escalating, cross-border war that disregards human rights and deeply erodes norms of international law.

But news from Africa may show—if only by way of contrast—that drone technology could serve useful purposes if unencumbered by the demands placed on it by hegemonic military strategists and misguided foreign policy prerogatives.

To make the point, as conservationists in South Africa claim, the vehicles could be used to help save the endangered white rhino there from extinction.

More than 650 rhinos—a new record—have been slaughtered this year for their horns. In fact, Clive Vivier, cofounder of the Zululand rhino reserve in KwaZulu-Natal province, puts that figure at nearer 1,000— out of a total population of 20,000.

The animals are killed for their ivory horns, which draw steep prices in the Asian market.

Vivier told The Guardian that he has been granted permission by the US State Department to purchase 30 surveillance drones—also used by the US military to target and kill terrorists and civilians.

He now must obtain permission from local civil aviation authorities to place 30 Arcturus T-20 drones in the sky.

The solution may be drastic, Vivier said, but with the animals headed toward extinction, "We don't have the numbers on the ground to see people and stop them killing the animals."

Already this year, a reconnaissance plane with surveillance equipment including thermal imaging began patrolling over Kruger park, according to the Africa's Mail & Guardian.

But Vivier said drones—unmanned and able to fly for 16 hours at 15,000 feet without refueling— would "change the rules of the game" for rangers, because infrared cameras could spot poachers at night.

"It can tell whether a man is carrying a shovel or firearm and whether he has his finger on the trigger or not," Vivier told The Guardian. 'We can see the poacher but he can't see us. We're good at arresting them when we know where they are. Otherwise it's like a needle in a haystack."

Vivier appealed to the US, UK and other countries to raise the approximately $9 million necessary to purchase the drones.

Earlier this month, Google donated $5 million to the World Wildlife Fund to purchase surveillance including drones to intercept poachers.

And drones are already used in Indonesia, Nepal and Florida to protect animals there and study invasive plants.

"We need this technology to put us in a position to catch the guys," Viviere said. "We need to do it before they kill the rhino."

Victims of US drone strikes in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere could not be reached for their comment.

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