Ol Pejeta deploys drone against rhino poachers


A female Northern White Rhinoceros walks inside its pen at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy. FILE PHOTO | REUTERS

A Kenyan conservancy is set to acquire a pilotless plane for protecting the last of Northern White rhinos which are threatened with extinction.

The Ol Pejeta conservancy is home to four of the last seven Northern White rhinos in existence worldwide.

An international campaign raised Sh3.9 million ($46,000) to buy the drone and boost the effort to conserve the endangered animals. One drone costs Sh2 million. The balance will be used to pay for other expenses.

The private 90,000 acre not-for-profit ranch is also home to other endangered species.

The 1.6-kilogramme plane fitted with surveillance cameras linked to a command centre via satellite will monitor unauthorised movements within the ranch as part of a pilot project. If successful, it will be replicated in other public and private wildlife sanctuaries.

Drones were first used for military purposes during the Iraq War two decades ago. Security companies have since introduced them in countries such as Japan for monitoring homes of the affluent.

In Kenya it would be the first drone being used for civilian purposes.

Ol Pejeta officials said on the conservancy’s website that the drone had been ordered from US-based aerial vehicle maker UASUSA Tempest while Unmanned Innovations, another US company, would launch the drone and provide equipment for the control room.

“If the aerial wildlife rangers (drones) see poachers they can guide rangers immediately to the right spot,” Unmanned Innovations CEO Jonathan Downey said.

The drones have an 80-kilometre range and stay in the air for two hours before they are recalled for battery recharging. There are 120 rangers in the conservancy whose movement will also be remotely monitored.

The drones will also enable virtual safaris on the conservancy with real-time satellite pictures being transmitted to homes, offices, schools and colleges.

The technology will also enable donors to ‘‘adopt’’ an animal that will bear a Radio Frequency Identity Tag (RFID) which will enable them monitor its movements within the ranch.

Northern White Rhinos were relocated from Dvur Kralove Zoo in the Czech Republic after conservationists identified Laikipia’s climate and well-protected santuaries as the most favourable breeding conditions.

Ol Pejeta boasts 88 Black rhinos, East Africa’s largest, and 11 Southern Rhinos.

However, there is a surge in poaching with rhinos targeted for their horns which are believed to have curative properties.

A rhino horn can fetch up to Sh1 million, a fortune in Kenya.