NANYUKI, KENYA: Increased poaching of wildlife is compelling wildlife conservancies in Kenya to invest heavily in cutting-edge security systems to tame the illicit trade.
They include armed patrols, informer networks, specialised armed teams, aircraft and tracker dogs and unmanned aerial vehicles. With the growing complexity of the illegal wildlife trade, experts say drones could soon be used in conservation efforts.
Speaking to The Standard, Chief Executive Officer of Laikipia-based Ol Pejeta Conservancy Richard Vigne said the measures would ensure the country’s treasures are well taken care of.
Critics, however, observe that drones may be perceived by rural communities, where majority of conservancies are based, as sinister technologies of surveillance, and therefore be associated with warfare and civilian casualties.
Today, Ol Pejeta is East Africa’s largest Black Rhino sanctuary, housing 102 black rhinos after the single largest rhino translocation ever undertaken in the region in February 2007. The translocation, according to the conservancy, has helped ensure that maximum breeding rates are achieved and adequate food resources maintained.
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The population of black rhino in Africa plummeted from an estimated 65,000 to around 10,000 in the early 1980s. By 2001, the total African population was estimated at 3,100.
In Kenya alone, the population dropped from 20,000 to less than 300 due to poaching, translating to a loss of 4.5 rhinos a day for 10 years. Presently, there are an estimated 620 black rhino in Kenya. “Kenya is the stronghold of the last remaining population of eastern sub-species, holding 88 per cent of the world’s remaining population,” said Vigne.
As one of the worlds most endangered species, the conservancy has set up a robust security plan “as poaching remains real and, sadly, an ever-increasing danger”.
“We are currently spending more than $2 million (Sh180 million) per year to tackle any imminent security risks facing our animals,” said Mr Vigne. “Due to this pressure, our funds are so committed that we are just operating at a break-even point.”
With a strong security, Ol Pejeta aims to have about 120 black rhinos in the next five years, although, according to the CEO, this is dependent upon ongoing and regular assessments of forage condition across the entire land area.
Mr Vigne said it is crucial that when working with endangered species like black rhinos, it is essential to ensure that numbers of any given population are held at some point below their “ecological carrying capacity”. “Beyond this point, breeding performance tends to deteriorate leading to reduced population growth,” he said.
In keeping with the national black rhino management strategy, Ol Pejeta is already seeking new areas in the immediate neighbourhood into which an expanding black rhino population could spread. “We have high hopes that a new 20,000 acre conservation area recently set aside by the Agricultural Development Corporation on Mutara Ranch on Ol Pejeta’s northern boundary might provide an ideal opportunity in this regard.”
Despite the perceived lukewarm performance of the tourism sector, Mr Vigne says they are expanding their bed capacity by setting up a new 36-bed camp, which will be opened later in the year. This, the conservancy says, will sufficiently cater for its more than 80,000 visitors a year.
But it is not tourism alone that is under the organisation’s focus. According to the chief executive officer, Ol Pejeta aims to remain contiguous with rest of the Laikipia ecosystem (northwards). Ol Pejeta’s seasonal elephant population is approximately 275 while that of lions is about 70.
Unlike many any conservancies in Kenya, Ol Pejeta which sits on a 90,000-acre piece of land is a not-for-profit outfit. This means revenues generated from tourists are re-invested in the conservation efforts as well as supporting the surrounding community.
Some of the community-oriented projects steered by the private conservancy include healthcare, agriculture, education and water. The organisation has a total of six dispensaries, serving more than 11,000 households while over 30 schools receive support from Ol Pejeta.
“A prime example of where we bring in education partners to widen the scope of support is the Kenya Sister Schools. They have facilitated the connection of 18 community schools with Canadian sister schools. Each school connection comes with financial and infrastructural support,” said Mr Vigne.
He says through these community activities, Laikipia will continue being on the global map as the guardian to four of the world’s last seven Northern White rhinos.