Kenya is set to deploy drones in all of its 52 national parks and reserves in a bid to monitor and stop the poaching of elephants and rhinos.
The move by the government follows a successful pilot project in a major protected wildlife area that saw drones reduce poaching by up to 96 percent.
Kenya has lost more than 435 elephants and around 400 rhinos to poachers since 2012, driven by demand for illegal wildlife products in Asia and elsewhere. Poachers have killed 18 rhinos and 51 elephants in 2014 so far.
Paul Udoto, spokesman for the Kenya Wildlife Service, said: “Use of drones has shown that we can prevent poaching and arrest many poachers on their tracks. The pilot project has been a success, and we are working with many partners, including the Kenya police, the National Intelligence Service and a lot of international partners such as Interpol, Ugandan and Tanzanian governments.”
He said he could not name which park the pilot took place in, in case it changed poachers’ tactics.
According to Udoto, the drones use radio frequencies to monitor the landscape and the movement of the animals. They are unmanned aircraft and remotely piloted in areas that are considered too risky for flight.
“The drones will have a capacity to spot the poachers before they even kill an animal. We have tried so many other security measures, but they have failed us,” Udoto said.
The drones will provide the rangers and other security personnel with 24-hour-a-day surveillance once in full force.
“With drones, you can keep aerial surveillance and monitor if there are any poaching activities. Poachers will be very scared, and we believe arrests will be many, based on the results of the pilot project. Enforcement will be much easier,” Udoto said.
The $103 million drone project is being funded partly by Kenya but also by the governments of the United States, Netherlands, France and Canada.
“Apart from drones, we are purchasing more equipment such as firearms, bulletproof vests and night equipment. We will also be training our rangers and recruiting new ones,” Udoto said.
KWS currently has 975 rangers, a figure set to rise to 1,600 by the end of the year.
Separate from its own rangers, Udoto said KWS was training community rangers who are employed by both community and private ranches. “We have trained about 1,200 community rangers. We plan to reduce poaching activities in all the 52 national parks and wildlife protected areas around Kenya in the next few months.”
William Kiprono, KWS director, told the Guardian: “Poaching is a menace, and we have realized something had to be done. That is why we decided to come up with the idea to use drones. This is a project that may even last a lifetime as long as poaching remains a problem and the global demand for wildlife products continues to increase.”
Six senior KWS officials were placed on leave earlier this month after allegations by its founder, Richard Leakey, that the service had been infiltrated with people enriching themselves from poaching.