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U.S. tech company Airware partners with Kenya’s Ol Pejeta Conservancy to combat animal poaching crisis in Africa


Daksha Rangan
Digital Reporter

Tuesday, July 22, 2014, 2:16 PM -

In the fight against poaching new technology is proving to be helpful in eliminating one of the world’s oldest crimes.

Kenya's Ol Pajeta Conservancy, a 90,000-acre reserve specializing in protecting white and black rhinos, has partnered with Airware, a San Fransisco-based tech company specializing in drone autopilot systems, to put this opportunity into effect. In an interview with the BBC, Robert Breare, Ol Pejeta's chief commercial officer, said that 10 days of testing were conducted with the help of Kenya Wildlife Service.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), or drone, technology was operated by rangers from a base location via two laptops: one displayed a map tracking the flight path, and the other displayed the UAV’s point of view through a high-definition camera. As a result, the rangers at base are able to view the drone's flight path on the map, while also capturing what the drone is looking at simultaneously.

Flying at night is also possible with the help of thermal imaging cameras. The operators clearly differentiate the shapes of animals. In an interview with the BBC, Airware's chief executive Jonathan Downey said the drone is hardly visible or noticeable. "We don’t want to startle the wildlife…or the tourists,” ” he added.

The trial run was very successful, however both parties have noted that more work needs to be done. Breare notes that while drones are a feasible contribution, they are not the whole solution. “They’re not a silver bullet,” said Breare in an interview with the BBC. “Trying to find the small shape of a poacher in a 90,000-acre park is still difficult, even with high-spec night time and thermal imaging.”

The ivory trade has grown to be a multi-million dollar business, and the black market price for rhino horn has become considerably higher than cocaine. According to Crawford Allan, a spokesman for the World Wildlife Fund’s crime technology project, South Africa’s Kruger National Park is “ground zero” for poachers. In an interview with the BBC, Allan said that “[t]here are 12 gangs in there at any time. It’s almost like a war zone.”

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