SURVEILLANCE drones are being deployed by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to combat rhino poaching.

So far this year, 82 rhinos have been killed by poachers for their horns. The Kruger National Park has been hardest hit, with 61 rhinos lost since January 1.

Last year, 668 rhinos were killed in South Africa. The previous record, set in 2011, was 448. Demand for rhino horn is growing in East Asia, where it is used as a medicine and an aphrodisiac. WWF South Africa rhino co-ordinator Jo Shaw said on Thursday that the US branch of the environmental group had received a $5m grant from Google to develop technologies to combat wildlife poaching.

The unmanned aerial vehicles — known as drones and used widely by the US government to spy on and attack suspected threats — were being deployed in South Africa to protect not only rhinos, but all endangered wildlife.

"It will be a three-year project over four different sites, linking hardware technology with new software that is being developed to try and break the illegal trade chain," Dr Shaw said.

The surveillance drones were being deployed this year at two sites in Africa and two in Asia to combat illegal trade in animals.

This is one of several technological solutions to poaching that were being developed with the Google grant. "They are investigating all options at the moment," Dr Shaw said. She could not provide further details about the manufacture of the surveillance drones.

Google’s sub-Saharan Africa head of communications and public affairs, Julie Taylor, said the multinational disbursed charitable grants, but did not direct how they should be spent.

"Our grant to the WWF was to support their efforts in protecting endangered species. How they choose to spend that is up to them," she said.

The official Google blog states: "The illegal wildlife trade, estimated to be worth $7bn-$10bn annually, devastates endangered species, damages ecosystems and threatens local livelihoods and regional security."

The WWF’s three-year project also includes combining data from the unmanned aerial vehicles, using cheap cellphone technology to track animal movements and handheld devices carried by rangers. This would be in a bid to outsmart often heavily-armed poachers.

Meanwhile, three rhino poachers were arrested at Nwanedi Game Reserve in Tshamatumbu, Limpopo police said yesterday. Rangers saw them carrying a hunting rifle on Tuesday.

"When the rangers confronted the suspects, shots were fired at them," Col Ronel Otto said. "The rangers returned fire, injuring one of the suspects ."

The men fled, but were arrested later at their homes. An unlicensed .303 hunting rifle was confiscated.

The suspects are to appear in the Mutale Magistrate’s Court on charges of trespassing, illegal possession of a firearm and unlawful hunting.

Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa said earlier this week that "rhino poaching is fought at various levels". These included field coverage, public awareness, regional and global engagement. She was announcing the number of rhinos poached so far this year.

With Sapa, Sue Blaine