Drones – The Weapon of Choice for Researchers’ Wildlife Conservation 

Illicit trading activities are combatted by new technologies

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Since pangolins became this year’s popular scapegoat for the global spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, enhanced protection of endangered species has become a pressing issue for wildlife conservationists.

Social distancing rules and travel restrictions of 2020 have meant that for those used to working in the field,  remote work became the norm. This has made it easier for poachers to carry out illicit trading activities. Researchers are now relying more than ever on new technologies, particularly drones (UAVs) to maintain the pace of wildlife conservation efforts.

There has been an uptick in recent years in the use of conservation drones. They are safer for researchers than many traditional methods, such as helicopter or terrestrial surveying, as well as cheaper and quieter. As drone technology has developed, so too has its effectiveness — with longer ranges, battery life and precision.

In Vietnam, a world-first in pangolin conservation came in January when Wildlife Drones began radio-tracking the scaly anteater’s movements. Nguyen Van Thai, executive director of Save Vietnam’s Wildlife, said, “our research team can now monitor up to 100 pangolins all at the same time. It not only enables us to track more animals than ever before, but the information we gain will help us optimize the way we rehabilitate and release more animals in the future.”

Risks to other endangered species are similarly being assessed from the skies. In Taiwan, drones are being used to survey turtle populations and monitor coral reefs. Thanks to UAV footage, researchers from Sun Yat-sen University discovered more than a thousand loggerhead turtles swimming off the shores of Taiping Island — a much greater number than they had estimated. They are less intrusive than using divers or underwater monitoring systems, not to mention less costly.

According to a study conducted in 2015, conservation drones are mostly employed for monitoring and mapping purposes. They allow for a complete, rapid and accurate collection of data to show researchers how a particular ecosystem is changing. As autonomous robots, drones also have the capacity to reach remote areas and record the behavior of undisturbed animals and collect biological material, essential for population monitoring.

In the world of forest preservation, drones are becoming a quieter, cheaper replacements for helicopters. In June, Madagascar launched a drone strategy to augment the country’s manual tree-planting efforts, using UAVs to launch seed missiles into remote areas difficult to reach on foot.

It’s not just reforestation however — drones can also help tackle deforestation. Earlier this year, Reuters reported that the Brazilian Amazon’s Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau tribe was using drones to monitor deforestation, detect land grabbers and illegal loggers. Drones are also being deployed by indigenous people elsewhere in Peru and Ecuador. Using drone footage, Mongabay discovered land being cleared for illegal coca plantations that was unknown to the local indigenous population.

The incorporation of drone technology complements pre-existing indigenous land-surveillance work. This is especially valuable as COVID-19 has temporarily suspended monitoring work in the Amazon. President of ECA-Amarakaeri Walter Quertehuari said, “if previously we traveled for days to access a region to register an illegal activity within our territory, now we can use drones to take photos, without interfering in the ecosystem.”

Drones are now even fitted with “anti-poaching technology,” allowing rangers around the world to observe live video transmission from within park boundaries, including at night when poachers are most active. Air Shepherd has turned to drones for the protection of elephants and rhinos in game reserves in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Malawi. Besides data collection, the drones act as a deterrent: Otto Werdmuller Von Elgg, director of UAV & Drone Solutions, said, “there has definitely been a decline overall in poaching numbers.”

But Roberto Pedraza, a conservationist and photographer of the Sierra Gorda in Mexico, says “drones are not useful for supervision here, because the connection cuts out easily in the mountains. Larger, autonomous supervision drones also cost a lot more than small photography drones.”

There are several other challenges that come with expanding drone use. They have become a popular tool for social media influencers and “explorers” broadcasting remote wildernesses, with little thought to the impact these vehicles have on their surroundings and its inhabitants. While such imagery may have the advantage of raising public awareness about wild and endangered species protection, it is essential that people using drones, particularly in and around their habitats, have adequate training and permissions. A 2016 paper in Current Biology details best practices for qualified ecologists using drones out in the field. 

Nonetheless, many consider drones as an example of “intrusive technology” that causes more harm than benefit. Although improvements have been made over the years, early drone models still create noise which often disturbs the species they are deployed to protect. For this reason, Pedraza finds using drones can pose a conservationist’s dilemma: “there’s always the risk that they will be attacked by a bird of prey, which in turn could injure itself.”

In 2018, controversy ignited when a drone-shot video, which had a bear cub showing “perseverance” [sic] scrambling up a snowy mountainside, went viral. Some commenters accused the filmmakers of “wildlife harassment.” Mark Ditmer, a postdoctoral scientist at Boise State University who has written a paper on how drones affect stress levels in bears, said, “the bears were extremely disturbed by what definitely appears to me — based on the way it’s moving — a drone capturing a video.”

However, with effective regulation, the benefits drones bring to conservation efforts can far outweigh the negatives. Some countries with strong ecological conservation measures, such as Taiwan, have implemented drone regulation.

Teng-Chiu Lin told the Oxygen Project, “we need to register our drones before we can use them in the field. For drones heavier than certain criteria, one would need to have a license to fly them.” However, he adds that this is not the main constraint of the use of drones in ecological conservation. “To me, one major constraint is that flying drones in many parts of Taiwan is either prohibited or requires special permits that we need to apply before we go there.”

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