Biology, ecology and biomedical science at Brighton

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How drones and sirens can help save the rhino

University of Brighton researchers have found new ways to help save white rhinoceros from illegal poaching – using drones and sirens.

They investigated the most effective ways of deterring rhinos from danger areas such as near perimeter fences where poachers often operate and spent six months on a South African game reserve testing the most effective way of persuading the animals to move to safer areas.

Poaching, fuelled by the international trade in horn, has caused the deaths of over 1,000 white and black rhinoceros per year between 2013 and 2017 and South Africa alone lost 5,476 rhinoceros to poaching between 2006 and 2016.

Lead researcher Samuel Penny, PhD student and lecturer in the University’s School of Pharmacy and Biomolecular Sciences, exposed a population of southern white rhinos to drones, sirens and the sound of a swarm of bees to see which best encouraged them to move.

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They also tried scattering different smells including chilli to deter the rhinos from danger areas.

He said: “We exposed them to each stimulus up to four times and discovered that rhinos travelled significantly further in response to the siren than to other noises and to low-altitude drone flights than to higher altitude flights.

“We found the drone to be superior at manipulating rhino movement than the siren due to its longer transmission range and capability of pursuit. In contrast, the scent stimuli were ineffective at inciting avoidance behaviour.

“They may be somewhat stressful but we only suggest that the deterrents be used in areas where poaching risk is high. The welfare of a manoeuvred rhino will always be substantially higher than that of a poached rhino (which usually ends in death). Additionally, if the stimuli do act as a source of stress and elicit fear or anxiety, we hope it will lead to future avoidance of the anxiety-associated stimulus or area.

“Our findings indicate that deterrents are a prospective low-cost and in situ method to manage rhino movement in game reserves.”

His research, co-authored by the University’s Dr Angelo Pernetta, Dr Rachel White and Professor Dawn Scott, has been published in the Royal Society’s Proceedings B journal

Penny has been conducting research into novel conservation techniques that aim to reduce poaching risks and conducts deterrent experiments, focusing on smell, acoustic and drone disturbance techniques. The research utilises the help of groups of citizen scientists to assist in data collection in the field throughout the year, co-ordinated by the Earthwatch Institute, the international environmental charity.

Penny’s PhD supervisor, Dr Angelo Pernetta, said: “This research, undertaken as part of Sam’s doctoral studies, will be valuable work for reserve managers in Southern Africa looking for rapid, low-cost and effective ways to move at-risk rhinos into areas of relative safety within reserves. This paper is a positive step to showing how off-the-shelf technologies can be used on the ground in areas impacted by poaching for the benefit of at-risk species.”

Penny said: “Prior to this research, we found it challenging to herd rhinos towards areas of relative safety during periods of high poaching risk. Used alongside existing anti-poaching patrols, our tactics could help make the animals easier to protect.

“Given the current rhino poaching crisis and the rising costs of effective anti-poaching security, it is urgent that we find new methods to help stem the slaughter.”

Penny graduated with a First Class (Hons) BSc in Biological Science from the University of Bristol in 2011. After being awarded a master’s degree in ecology and conservation he worked as a research assistant for the University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland, before joining the University of Brighton’s Rhino Conservation project in 2015 (

For more information on Penny, go to:


Stephanie Thomson • July 17, 2019

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