By Teo Kermeliotis
How do you protect some of the world's rarest large mammals from rampant poaching in an area about six times the size of Manhattan? Conservationists in Kenya believe the answer could come from the skies.
Nestled in the shadow of the majestic Mount Kenya, Ol Pejeta Conservancy is a 90,000-acre game reserve boasting a wide array of wildlife, including the endangered black and white rhinos, elephants, leopards, lions and chimpanzees. Since late 2009, it has also been home to four of the last seven northern white rhinos left in the world.
Despite its vast size, the privately owned conservancy relies on a team of just 190 rangers -- 40 of whom are armed -- to safeguard the wildlife roaming its grass plains and acacia-dotted savannah.
Rhinos, in particular, are in great danger as their horns, which are highly coveted in some parts of the world for their supposed healing powers, are increasingly being targeted by highly equipped criminal syndicates. Armed with big guns, chainsaws and night-vision equipment, poachers seem to prefer targeting privately owned game parks, where security is often a big expense that not all of them can afford.
But now bosses at Ol Pejeta are planning to test an innovative solution to supplement their security efforts for the protection of the endangered animals: unmanned aerial drones that will help monitor and track wildlife across the reserve night and day, as well as providing immediate notifications over the presence of poachers.
Last week, the Kenyan conservancy successfully concluded its campaign to raise $35,000 via crowd-funding website Indiegogo to help it buy its first drone from U.S. company Unmanned Innovation Inc. The electrically powered "aerial ranger," with a final cost of about $70,000, will be fitted with a high-definition camera featuring a powerful zoom for day operations and infrared thermal imaging for night flights.
Each aerial mission is expected to cover an area of 50 square miles over a 90-minute flight. It will fly three or four times a day, monitoring the locations of the endangered species and transmitting a live stream to a laptop on the ground, providing key information that will enable rangers to reach vulnerable areas and fend off any potential poaching dangers. More....