Drones similar to those used against terrorists are to be used to help save Africa’s last White Rhinos from poachers.
They are among the last seven of their kind in the world – and for the past three years, the four northern white rhinos that roam in the shadow of Mount Kenya, Africa’s second-highest mountain, have each had their own round-the-clock armed guard to keep them safe.
As the most highly endangered sub-species of white rhino, they are the most precious of the 110 rhinos of all kinds that live within Kenya’s Ol Pejeta Conservancy, a privately owned reserve where the animals roam over 90,000 acres between flat-topped acacia trees and tall savannah grasses.
But all the animals are under constant threat from poachers who are hunting rhinos across Africa with increasing ferocity for their valuable horns – a fact highlighted last week by the Duke of Cambridge, who has called for urgent action to stop the killing.
Now a new weapon is to be added to the arsenal used to fend off the rhino poachers: remotely-piloted surveillance drones which will track the animals’ whereabouts across the Ol Pejeta reserve, and give rapid warning of unwanted human encroachment, even at night.
Commercial aerial drones – similar to those used by the military in Afghanistan and elsewhere to identify terrorist targets, but smaller and unarmed – are being adapted to deploy high resolution cameras and infra-red thermal imaging for night operations over the reserve, monitoring the locations of the endangered rhinos.
The expectation is that in a single flight the electric-powered drones will be able to cover 10,000 acres, far more effectively than a team of staff on the ground, and enable armed wardens to be dispatched rapidly to the right place if an animal is at risk.
Those in Ol Pejeta include 11 southern whites and the four northern whites – two males and two females, which were returned to the wild in 2009 after being flown to Africa from a zoo in the Czech Republic.
The drones, described by staff as “Aerial Rangers”, each of which will cost $50,000, have wingspans of around 10 feet, weigh 10lbs and can be launched by a simple catapult. They will stream live images back to base using an on-board GPS system to pinpoint the exact locations involved.
A helicopter and assault dogs also support the security team.