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Extinction Countdown

Extinction Countdown

News and research about endangered species from around the world

Crowd-Funded Drones Could Help Protect Kenyan Rhinos

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ol pejeta rhinosWhat 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.

droneSimilar 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.

The first use of drones, though, will be as a deterrent to poaching. "The word will go around that there's something up there, an eye in the sky," Breare remarks. "The sound of its motor as it's flying along, that will be the single biggest benefit for us as we go forward."

Ol Pejeta did not suffer any poaching losses in 2012 but Elodie Sampéré, their marketing manager, says there were a few attempts. "Our neighboring conservancies were not so lucky," she says. Nearby Lewa Wildlife Conservancy lost five rhinos in less than two weeks. Ol Pejeta did lose six rhinos to poachers in the previous three years.

Breare says the Unmanned Innovation drone offers important performance criteria such as duration and range—it will be able to fly 1.5 hours at a time and cover more than 80 kilometers. The drone also boasts another important quality: longevity. "It's very easy to spend less on a drone but get something that won't last as long," he comments.

If the initial phase of the drone rollout is effective, Ol Pejeta hopes to buy more to monitor the wildlife within its borders as well as gather behavior data that could be useful in a broader conservation context. It might also be able to use the video feeds to help enhance tourism operations.

Ol Pejeta turned to crowdfunding out of "desperation for money," Breare admits. The conservancy is funded by tourism and other commercial operations, but tourism has dropped off pending Kenya's elections this March. The country's 2007 contest was highly contentious and resulted in two months of violence that left hundreds of people dead and hundreds of thousands displaced. "We hope the upcoming elections go well," Breare says. "We're optimistic, but it is likely that tourism will suffer a degree of downturn turning that period."

The crowdfunding campaign runs through Sunday, January 20. Contributors—who will only end up paying whatever they pledge if the full $35,000 is raised by then—can choose from a number of perks depending on how much they donate, including the opportunity to sponsor an RFID tag for a specific animal, which will be named after anyone who donates $150. (So far, that's the most popular contribution level.)

Breare notes if the crowdfunding campaign is successful, Ol Pejeta could get their first UAV in the air as soon as March, and definitely by June. "The sooner we can put it into action the sooner we can learn from it and share what we learn with everyone else in the conservation world," he says.

Previously in Extinction Countdown:

Photos: Ol Pejeta Conservancy and Unmanned Innovation

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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