Rhino conservation in Kenya is getting a high-tech makeover—emphasis on high.
The Ol Pejeta Conservancy, a 90,000-acre park that's home to four of the seven remaining wild Northern White Rhinoceroses, has partnered with Unmanned Innovation to develop an aerial ranger to help protect the treasured creatures. The drone will fly over the park—covering about 50 miles of land per hour and a half flight—and livestream HD video feed to park rangers.
Each rhino will also be outfitted with radio frequency ID tags. These unique tags will allow the drone to locate each animal using GPS technology.
Knowing a drone is guarding the park should act as a big deterrent to potential poachers. Richard Ruggiero, Chief of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Africa Program, told TakePart he believes the drone will be a boon to conservation efforts: “[drones] are relatively inexpensive, have a long flight duration and can carry cameras that can help with surveillance.”
Ruggiero stressed that the drone will be especially helpful at nighttime, when most poaching occurs. “At night you have trouble monitoring [the animals] but a drone is able to use thermal imaging, while flying very quietly, to identify the rhinos and identify poachers.”
While there are countless benefits to using drones, Ruggiero does not think human guards will be abandoned altogether: “It’s not realistic to say it will be all drones. It’s going to be a hybrid system.”
To raise money for the drone, Ol Pejeta is relying on the aforementioned Indiegogo campaign—their goal is to raise $35,000—which ends on January 20.
In 2010 and 2011 more than 300 rhinos were killed annually in South Africa alone. Last year, 455 rhinos had already been killed in South Africa by October. Rhinos are exceptionally attractive to poachers; the average wage in Kenya is $1 a day, while a rhino horn can fetch $12,000 on the black market.
This makes protecting Ol Pejeta’s rhinos all the more important. The creatures play an integral role in ecosystem maintenance. Rhinos are valued for their role as seed dispersers, in turn helping native plants grow. Ruggiero also praised the white rhinos for their grazing capabilities: “white rhinos are grazers, like cattle. They’re slower, they’re bigger and they’re designed to eat grass. They eat very coarse grass and in the process it makes smaller, more palatable grasses—things that other animals like Thompson’s Gazelles eat—grow.”
Not only will the drone be important in guarding against poaching, it will also be a valuable educational tool. The drone will allow students, educators and everyday people alike to take “virtual tours” of the Conservancy. It will also allow rangers to amass valuable data on animal behavior and movement. Ol Pejeta also believes that the drone’s virtual tours will increase interest in tourism, benefitting the local economy.
Conservationists always have to try to stay one step ahead of the poachers. Technology has become an important tool for protecting endangered species. But as Ruggiero points out, “just as it makes it easier for the good guys, it also makes it easier for the bad guys.”
As poachers become more creative in their tactics, it is imperative that the conservation world catches up. Ol Pejeta’s drone embraces new conservation technology, while allowing the world to learn more about the rare Northern White Rhinoceros.
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Jenna Shapiro is a high school senior in New York City who is passionate about writing and environmental issues. She has previously worked with EcoLogic Solutions. In her free time she can be found reading, biking, or walking her adorable dogs!