Kenyan Wildlife Conservancy Plans to Use a Drone to Counter Rhino Poaching

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: A word of caution for poachers beware the eye in the sky. The latest weapon against illegal ivory hunting in Kenya, is unmanned air craft. Conservation groups and governments across Africa have been struggling to police the poachers and protect the animals. But the stretches of land they patrol are enormous so a wildlife conservancy in Kenya has purchased a drone to keep an eye on its' threatened residents. The conservancy crowd-sourced 45,000 dollars to help buy the drone. Rob Breare is with the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. Breare says the drone will help keep an eye on endangered species at Ol Pejeta including 110 rhinos.

Rob Breare: We actually have quite a number of variety of rhinos. We've actually got four of the last seven Northern white rhino in the entire world in existence. Those animals actually have their own 24 hour armed guard to protect against poaching. The rest of them are very much spread around the conservancy but we know roughly where they are sort of patches are so we'll be able to focus our drone flights and missions where the rhinos mostly spend their time.

Werman: Wow just four out of the seven of the worlds white rhinos. What about the others are they equally threatened?

Breare: Yeah equally threatened the Northern whites are a subspecies of the white rhino but the other ones you know at the moment I would say rhino are facing somewhat of a poaching onslaught. A lot of our sister conservancy right next door have been losing rhino regularly over the last few months. We can take our eye of the ball in one second and we really worry that we're going to lose one of ours.

Werman: So the drone is going to be your eye in the sky. Who is going to be the eye on the ground looking at what the drone is looking at?

Breare: Well one of the big things we try to focus on is maximum simplicity. We can't afford to have a fully qualified pilot sitting in the seat in HQ. What we've got is a very simple ground control system that is very much like a Google Earth interface point and click and what we'll have is one of our trained members of staff sitting behind the laptop operating it. It's incredibly simple.

Werman: So with this drone you spot poachers closing in on one of your rhinos then what do you do?

Breare: For us we've seen the drone benefits in three stages. The sheer deterrence factor, people know that there's an eye in the sky they're far less likely to try any poaching in the first place. After that for us it's about observation. As you rightly say, if an incidence takes place our drone can do about 125 kilometers an hour so we can get it there very very quickly. That means we can guide our rangers in on the incidence and actually by having an eye in the sky for them it allows us to look after their protection and security as well. Ultimately, we don't want it to be just about those poaching incidences we see this as a chance to track those animals collect some behavioral data and in even the long run help us with our tours and activities and things like visitor traffic flow.

Werman: Are there poaches you can identify from the air you think?

Breare: Our drone is equipped with a 20x zoom Sony block camera zoom so really very high resolution and we expect to be able to zoom in on faces from a reasonable altitude. We do obviously have individuals that we believe are involved in that kind of thing we'll be keeping track. We are not the same as a military, we are not going for strike capability or anything along those lines. For us it is about deterrence and observation first and foremost.

Werman: So poaches are known to be pretty ruthless and determined are you worried at all about poaches shooting down your drones?

Breare: Well you know at the end of the day the drone is only about 10 feet long. It flies at 100 kilometers an hour at reasonable altitude so you're going to have to have someone who's quite a crack shot to be able bring something that small down.

Werman: Robert are you focusing on other animals or just rhinos?

Breare: No. No very much other animals. Our pets [sp] is home to a number of endangered species for example the Greby Sepra [sp] which there are only relatively few left in the world. We're quite keen to chip and track a number of different species. It's not just about protecting them hopefully that will give us some insight into animal movements and some behavior in the long run.

Werman: Rob Breare head of strategies and innovations for the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Keyna and a drone to track endangered species is a great innovation Rob thanks for speaking with us. This is PRI.