'GMA' on Safari: How Drones Are Helping Combat Poaching in Africa

ABC News’ TJ Holmes went on patrol at South Africa’s Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park.

ByABC News
February 23, 2016, 7:46 AM

— -- The Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park in South Africa is the oldest game reserve on the continent, but park rangers there face an uphill battle against poachers who are illegally hunting rhinos to near extinction.

As part of the “GMA” on Safari series this week, ABC News’ TJ Holmes traveled to the park and accompanied its rangers on patrol.

"What's the bigger threat to your ranger? Is it the animals or the poachers?” Holmes asked ranger Enock Mfanafuthi Xulu, who replied: “It's the poachers, definitely. The poachers, they've got deadly weapons, it's the poachers."

The ranger added: “We are trying ... it’s very bad."

Park rangers compare trying to save the rhinos from poachers to fighting a war. Armed poachers come after rhinos every night on the park’s grounds.

On the night of Holmes’ visit, the rangers had air support from drones. The project, known as Air Shepherd, provides drones with infrared cameras to patrol the park and transmit images in real time to a mobile command center where a team is monitoring the feeds.

If poachers are spotted, the drone team can tell rangers where to find them.

This is the latest attempt to combat the killing of rhinos in South Africa, which is home to more than 80 percent of the world’s rhino population. The animals are facing extinction in the wild because they are hunted for their highly coveted horns.

Most of the demand comes from Asia, where rhino horns are believed to have medicinal powers and fetch a very high price. But there is no scientific proof that rhino horn has any medicinal benefits, said Julian Rademeyer, the author of “Killing for Profit,” a book about the rhino trade.

Despite that, “people firmly believe that rhino horn does have the attributes it’s said to have. It’s the same as telling a Christian Jesus Christ doesn’t exist,” Rademeyer told ABC News.

Rhino poaching has reached unprecedented levels in South Africa. Ten years ago, about 25 rhinos were poached in the entire country. Last year that number soared to 1,175, according to the Endangered Wildlife Trust, a southern Africa wildlife conservation organization.

Holmes met with a former poacher who asked not to be identified. Speaking through a translator, the poacher said he has killed at least 50 rhinos in order to support his family.

“At times I would feel sorry for the animals but I had to do what I had to do,” he told Holmes.