Drone With Night Vision Tracks Down Poachers at Sea

In this week’s crime blotter: a hunt on the open water, a cop turned poacher, and the quest for endangered timber.

WATCH: Conservationists use a drone to help track down totoaba poachers.

A mission straight out of a thriller movie took place on the night of April 15 when a crew with the ocean conservation group Sea Shepherd decided to take down poachers operating in Mexico’s territorial waters in the Gulf of California.

The suspects’ target, according to Sea Shepherd: the endangered totoaba, a little-known fish found only in the gulf whose swim bladders—the organ that helps them float—are in high demand in China for soups and medicines. This trade threatens not only the totoaba but also a critically endangered little porpoise called the vaquita, which gets caught in the gillnets used to illegally catch totoaba (whales, sharks, and other marine life also get trapped).

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Poachers capture endangered totoabas for their swim bladders, which are worth thousands on the Chinese market.

Sea Shepherd, known for its aggressive tactics, used a quadcopter drone equipped with a thermal night vision camera to document the suspects pulling in their net. The poachers quickly fled, lowering the net, but the conservationists tracked the suspects with the drone and relayed their coordinates to the Mexican Navy. In the meantime, the team located the gillnet, freeing four live cownose rays. Two entangled juvenile hammerhead sharks and a couple of corvina fish had already died.

It’s not the first time Sea Shepherd has swooped in to remove illegal nets. In January 2016, the Mexican government gave the organization permission to go after them, and the conservationists have taken out 40 since then.

Some other wildlife crime busts, convictions, and confiscations around the world announced this past week:

WOOD SMUGGLERS: An alleged smuggler of endangered red sanders logs surrendered to police in Andhra Pradesh, India, according to the Hindu. Four of his supposed co-conspirators had already been arrested, but he fled, and police launched a manhunt. The publication reports that the man has links to international gangsters.

CONCEALED IVORY: Customs officers at Hong Kong International Airport arrested a man found with 60 pounds of ivory products worth $260,000 hidden in his luggage, says the South China Morning Post. Officials said the man, who’s from the Ivory Coast, arrived at the airport from Dubai. The suspect could face a maximum of two years in prison and a five-million-dollar fine for smuggling the ivory, the paper notes.

POACHERS OR POLICE?: Cops in Kitgum, a district in northern Uganda, busted one police officer and three other people suspected of illegally possessing two live pangolins, reports Insider. Pangolins are believed to be the most trafficked mammals in the world, desired for their meat and the mistaken belief that their scales have medicinal value.

WHISTLE-BLOWER WOES: Zimbabwean judge Godfrey Chidyausiku has halted the trial of two women accused of unlawfully possessing 60 pounds of raw ivory, according to the Herald. The prosecution has refused to name the informant in the case, and the women contend that this violates their constitutional right to information. The case is on hold until the court settles the issue.

This story was produced by National Geographic’s Special Investigations Unit, which focuses on wildlife crime and is made possible by grants from the BAND Foundation and the Woodtiger Fund. Read more stories from the SIU on Wildlife Watch. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to ngwildlife@natgeo.com.