By John R. Platt
What if there were only a couple dozen police officers to patrol all of Manhattan? Now imagine that the borough protected something far more valuable than gold, something that heavily armed criminals were willing to kill to get. How could those few officers keep the peace over such a large territory? That’s roughly the equivalent of what it’s like these days at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in central Kenya. The 36,400-hectare nonprofit wildlife reserve is home to endangered black and white rhinos, elephants, lions, chimpanzees and Grevy’s zebras, as well as four of the world’s last seven northern white rhinos (Ceratotherium simum cottoni). But despite its size, Ol Pejeta only has 160 guards to patrol the entire area, which is about 75 percent of the size of New York City. The rhinos, especially, are at risk from poachers who see vast fortunes in the animals’ horns. According to the conservancy, a single horn could bring a poacher the equivalent of 30 years’ pay in country where the average income is just $1 a day. (For background, read “Rhino Poaching: An Extinction Crisis.”)
Although Ol Pejeta’s northern white rhinos are under 24-hour armed guard, patrolling the rest of the conservancy with current manpower is an almost impossible task. To help protect the endangered animals within its care the conservancy wants to try something new. It has turned to the crowdfunding site Indiegogo to raise $35,000 to buy its first unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), or drone, airplane to help monitor and protect its wildlife.
Similar drones have been used around the world in recent years to help conserve orangutans, elephants, tigers and other endangered species. The UAVs don’t contain weapons like military drones: they are smaller and conservationists use them to monitor situations from the sky. “There are a lot of drones that are coming into conservation at the moment,” says Robert Breare, who is in charge of strategy and innovation at Ol Pejeta and is heading up the project. “A lot of times with these emerging technologies they sort of pop up everywhere at the same time.” After looking at several options, the conservancy chose a model from the U.S.-based company Unmanned Innovation that will be able to fly over the landscape in preprogrammed patterns while sending a live video feed back to a laptop computer. The UAV will sport a high-definition camera with a high-power zoom for day flights and thermal imaging for nighttime activities. Ol Pejeta also plans to fit some of the animals with radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags, which the drone will be able to locate and track.
Using drones could help Ol Pejeta get the necessary information to put its guards in the right remote places at the right times. “You’re not talking about an area that’s crisscrossed with easy roads,” Breare notes. “It’s basically wilderness.” The combination of video and RFID tags will allow them to see problems from the air, which could include animals in trouble or the presence of people, such as poachers, where they are not supposed to be. More....