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Petaluma native lends drone expertise to help black rhino conservationists

In the middle of an hour-long walk one Wednesday morning in October, Petaluma native Jeremy Crowley began to quietly backtrack his steps. Standing in the middle of a Namibian wildlife preserve, he and two others spotted a hulking grey figure in the grass. It was Columbus, an alpha male black rhino, and he was deep into a morning snooze.

“It hits you in a different way to see them in person,” the 24-year-old said, recalling his wildlife encounters. “We’ve all seen it on TV, but it makes you really appreciate their beauty, and the need to protect these animals.”

It was the first rhino sighting for Crowley, a lucky encounter during his first day on the ground at Kuzikus Wildlife Reserve in the southern African country.

The recent Stanford graduate spent more than a week in Namibia last year through his employer, drone company Skydio, helping conservationists deploy the technology to track and observe critically endangered black rhinos.

Crowley was one of four-person team who made the trip to Kuzikus Wildlife Reserve in the east of the country, located between the country’s capital, Windhoek, and its border with Botswana. It was the recent iteration of a yearly partnership between the reserve and non-invasive wildlife monitoring organization WildTrack.

For seven days, Crowley would wake up before sunrise and cram into a Jeep, spending the morning collecting data. After a lunchtime rest and respite from the midday sun, he and the team would push back out again for another few hours of flying drones over the expanse, looking for signs of the reserve’s small population of black rhinos.

“Essentially every day we were waking up at sunrise and going out to track the various rhinos,” Crowley said. “By using a drone, you can get a bird’s eye view aerial, and do that safely.”

Crowley and his team flew dozens of data-finding drone trips over the 100-square-kilometer reserve to build a detailed aerial map of the property. The group of drone advisers aim to build technology that will use footage to identify individual rhinos based on footprints left in the sand.

For Crowley, it was the first time he visited the African continent and offered him the opportunity to explore the cutting edge of wildlife conservation technology.

“I love to travel and have traveled a lot, but what was new about this was that I was traveling under the context of bringing this technology to help people use it for socially responsible uses.”

(Contact Kathryn Palmer at kathryn.palmer@arguscourier.com, on Twitter @KathrynPlmr.)

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