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Africa

Meeting the Northern white rhinos

The last seven Northern white rhinos left in the world are in the conservancy of Ol Pejeta in Central Kenya.
Last modified: 4 Jan 2013 16:45
Sudan moved to Kenya in 2009, from Dvur Kralove Zoo in the Czech Republic.[Nazanine Moshiri/Al Jazeera]

Before I travelled to the conservancy of Ol Pejeta in Central Kenya, I had no idea that there are only seven Northern white rhinos left in the world.

I was extremely privileged to meet 4 of them. Najin, Fatu, Sudan and Suni were moved to Kenya in 2009, from Dvur Kralove Zoo in the Czech Republic.

They were not mistreated at the zoo; in fact the Czech facility is the only one in the world to have bred northern white rhinoceroses in captivity.

But Scientists behind the relocation operation, which has been called "Last Chance to Survive" , hope conditions in Kenya will help the two males and two females to mate more frequently.

A sample of the faeces from the females is sent every few days to a laboratory in Austria to see whether she is pregnant. But so far they haven't managed to reproduce.

Getting close, one of the male Rhinos Sudan, who is 38 years old, was incredible. He was perhaps a little too curious about our cameraman Chris Matlock, getting very close to him, and at one point almost stepping and crushing our go pro camera.

The ranger, who has been with him since 2009, kept tempting him away from us with local grass.

Poaching

Unfortunately, these rhinos need 24-hour protection, from poachers who are willing to risk their lives for the lucrative sums they can make from selling their horns.

However, Batian Craig, decided to change the way the security system works 18 months ago, when 4 rhinos were brutally killed on the conservancy. 

There are now 34 disciplined and heavily armed rangers with Kenyan Police reserve status, and in addition to the rangers, Ol Pejeta also uses assault dogs which are trained to track and capture poachers.

" What we are hearing is the prize for a trigger man is 15 thousand dollars. Ol pejeta can't match that people are willing to take the risk and understandably,” explains Craig. 

"It is most likely unemployed guys doing this and the risk is worth taking. That is 10 or 15 years in a well-paid job."

Unmanned Drone

All of this has led Ol Pejeta conservancy to attempt something very new here in Kenya. You wouldn’t necessarily associate a drone infamous for its military use in striking targets in places like Afghanistan, with the protection of wildlife.

The conservation team at Ol Pejeta has teamed up with an American company called Unmanned Innovation to create a specialist aerial drone which would monitor and view the rhinos from the skies.

Each drone would cover an area of around 80km, with the ability to fly for more than one and a half hours non-stop. That is particularly useful for Ol Pejeta which spans a massive 90,000 acres or as its website puts it 6 times the size of Manhattan.

Moreover, the drones would be fitted with a live streaming HD camera, mounted for 360o remote controlled viewing, and the rhinos would be tagged, so the drone's sensors can recognise individual animals, and use on-board GPS to store an image, giving location coordinates.

Robert Breare came up with the idea of using the drone in Kenya. He wanted an aircraft that could “withstand strong gusts of winds, and be robust in the open plains of central Kenya.”

"There's quite a big payload space which allows us to put whatever sensors we want, "Breare says. "Putting in regular cameras for zooms and thermal imaging at night."

Breare says another attraction is "the simplicity of the controls." Ol Pejeta can't afford pilots on the ground. The ground control system is very simple and easy to use. Breare explains you can "point and click and the mission is done. It lands itself on its belly so there is no need for specialist landings."

The Last Hope

The rhinoceros is around 50 million years old, and just half a century ago there were more than 2,000 Northern White Rhinos were roaming the plains of Africa.

The Rhinos at Ol Pejeta really are the last hope for the species.