An unlikely contender in the battle for wildlife conservation has entered the ring: drones. Thanks to their ability to cover large land masses with low overhead costs, drones are playing a part in the reduction of wildlife threats. Across the globe, drones are aiding in everything from migration tracking to nest surveys to habitat management and even anti-poaching activities. Read on to discover how drones are changing wildlife conservation around the world.
Orangutan Conservation in South Asia
Orangutans are currently listed as critically endangered animals by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), and their numbers have been plummeting since the 70s. Today, orangutans face growing threats from poaching and palm oil production across South Asia, making the monitoring of these animals more important than ever.
Conserving the orangutan population effectively requires accurate and timely data on the density, distribution, and land cover change of these animals. This data, once time-consuming and challenging for rangers to acquire with ground surveys, has become increasingly more efficient with the aid of UAVs.
Today, the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP) in Indonesia uses drones to fly above the tree canopy to effectively monitor and track endangered populations by observing nests. With cameras able to record video at up to 1080 pixel resolution, drones allow for the high-resolution images that are often too costly for conservation workers to obtain otherwise. Conservation drones can fly pre-programmed missions autonomously for up to 50 minutes and over a distance of 25 km, helping researchers survey and map forests as well as their biodiversity.
Catching Poachers in Africa
South Africa is home to more rhinoceros than any other country, housing 83% of Africa’s rhinos. Unfortunately, the country also experiences the highest levels of poaching, which is the primary threat to the conservation of the species. The past few years have seen a significant increase in poaching deaths. The continent’s elephant population has declined by 30% from 2007 to 2014, and at least 1,338 rhinos were killed for their horns in 2015 alone, threatening the extinction of elephants and rhinoceroses altogether. Past efforts to stop poaching throughout the country have seen little success—until now.
Backed by funding from the World Wildlife Fund, including $5 million from Google, drones are being tested in the first-ever evaluation of their ability to combat poachers. The Air Shepherd Initiative (ASI) group uses analytics to identify areas where frequent rhino and elephant poaching occurs and sends whisper-silent drones to track poachers. With algorithms predicting when and where poaching will take place, these drones, equipped with night vision, are deployed for surveillance. From there, rangers are sent to intercept potential poachers.
Flying drones up to 15 miles away at night gives ASI critical advantages. The majority of poachers know that after dark hours lack effective patrols, leaving parks more vulnerable, so most poaching occurs at night. Since the program’s launch, the ASI has completed over 4,000 missions across 3 countries to help end poaching in Africa.
Humpback Whale Watching in Antarctica
Biologists and zoologists have traditionally flown helicopters and small planes overhead, followed by foot, and utilized satellite photography to learn more about the migration habits of wild animals. But these methods take a significant amount of time and resources. David Bird, professor of wildlife biology at McGill University, explains, “Drones can offer a very safe, green, and inexpensive alternative to manned aircraft.”
Drones used by wildlife biologists are significantly smaller and more affordable than previous methods while still capturing detailed photographs. These drones can also be fitted with thermal cameras and sensors for more accurate monitoring. Not only do drones utilize less resources, they’re also safer. According to Bird, small plane and helicopter crashes are some of the leading causes of death for wildlife biologists who are on the job counting animals or surveying nests.
In Antarctica, marine biologists from Duke University fly their drones over the coastline and nearby seas to monitor the habits of humpback whales. The team hopes to observe how many whales are involved in habits like working together to feed and if these whales play the same or varying roles when feeding time comes around. Since the perspective of watching whale behavior is usually from boats or land, being about to visualize what these whales are doing safely from above with drones could prove to be revolutionary.