Imagine that only a couple of dozen police officers patrol all of Manhattan and protect something that heavily armed criminals are willing to kill for. That is roughly what it is like these days at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in central Kenya. The 36,000-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). 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 a country where the average income is just $1 a day.
Although Ol Pejeta's northern white rhinos are under 24-hour armed guard, patrolling the rest of the conservancy with only 160 guards is an almost impossible task. To help protect the animals within its care, the conservancy has turned to the crowdfunding site Indiegogo to raise $35,000 to buy its first unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), or drone.
Similar drones have been used around the world to help conserve other endangered species. 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. 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,” says Robert Breare, who is in charge of strategy and innovation at Ol Pejeta and is heading up the project. “The sound of its motor as it's flying along—that will be the single biggest benefit for us.”
Adapted from Extinction Countdown at blogs.ScientificAmerican.com/extinction-countdown