Innovative researchers and conservationists are using drones to monitor threatened animal populations, collect valuable biological data and even deter poachers.
For lost hikers, the buzz of a drone as it zooms by overhead can mean help is on the way. For doctors in remote areas, the sound can signal the arrival of much-needed medical supplies. However, one of the biggest groups served by drones might not even notice the high-tech devices swooping across the skies.
From African rhinos to sea-dwelling whales, animals across the globe benefit from conservation drone technology.
“Conservationists are using drones to help map changes in the status of ecosystems and wildlife habitat, and to help locate illegal activities within parks, community reserves and conservancies,” explained David Wilkie, director of conservation support for the Wildlife Conservation Society.
From tracking endangered species by footprint identification to deterring poachers to collecting whale snot, these camera-equipped flying robots are gathering valuable data to help protect animals.
Facing Mass Extinction
Scientists have proposed that the Earth is currently undergoing a mass extinction event. Two-thirds of the wild animals on Earth could be gone by 2020, according to a 2016 report from the World Wildlife Foundation and Zoological Society of London.
“To attempt to mitigate what could be a global ecological disaster, we desperately need reliable and regular data on the numbers and distribution of endangered species,” said zoologist and veterinarian Zoe Jewell.
Collecting reliable data on endangered species can be challenging and expensive. But it’s vital for protecting their habitats, Jewell said.
To overcome this problem, Jewell and wildlife biologist Sky Alibhai cofounded WildTrack, a nonprofit organization dedicated to non-invasively tracking animals. The organization’s latest project, ConservationFIT, uses images of animal footprints to monitor more than a dozen endangered species.
Using a footprint identification technique (FIT), researchers gain new insight into endangered species without disturbing them, said Jewell.
Through digital images of footprints, researchers can identify the species, sex and age of the individual animal, and even recognize the same animal’s print again in the future.
While anyone with a camera can submit photos of animal footprints to the organization’s website, drones are proving to be one of the best ways for the group to collect footprint images.
“Having a bird’s eye view has huge advantages in some of the places we work,” said Jewell.
Drones make remote terrain accessible. For example, looking for cheetah trails across the vast expanses of the Namibian desert or searching for Amur tiger trails in the heavy snow in the far northeast of China can be hard for researchers, but easy for drones.
“Drones can greatly reduce the time taken to find trails of footprints, and allow access to areas that might be very difficult to traverse on foot,” added Jewell.
“One or two people can then also save teams of people from wading across difficult terrain.”
Night Sky Air Shepherds
The demand for rhino horns and elephant tusks may force African elephants and rhinos into extinction within the next decade, according to the organization.
The iIllegal poaching industry not only threatens animals, it also generates $70 billion per year, which is often used to fund organized crime and terrorist groups, according to Otto Werdmuller Von Elgg, Air Shepherd’s head of drone operations in Africa.
Rangers deter most poaching activity during the day, so now almost all poaching happens at night. That’s where Air Shepherd dominates. Using infrared cameras, drone teams can see any nocturnal poaching activity in the park and send rangers on the ground to intercept poachers.
Air Shepherd does more than just stop poaching in progress, though — thanks to the high visibility of drones, it also prevents it.
“A big part of the benefit of drones is the deterrence factor,” said Werdmuller Von Elgg. “When the Air Shepherd drones fly over an area, poaching stops. Word spreads throughout the villages the drones are flying, and it disrupts the actions of poachers.”
He said drones are just a new, valuable tool for collecting useful data. Purposeful collaboration across different conservation projects and organizations is what matters most.
“Without cooperation and partnership, drones alone will not solve the anti-poaching issue,” said Werdmuller Von Elgg.
The group is currently active in South Africa, Malawi and Zimbabwe, and it hopes to soon expand to new territories and countries.
“We want more drones flying that are working with anti-poaching teams on the ground so we can improve the odds of saving more elephants and rhinos,” said Werdmuller Von Elgg.
While Air Shepherd’s drones patrol sub-Saharan Africa, drones from the Ocean Alliance and Intel fly above surfacing whales in the world’s oceans and seas. Known as Parley SnotBots, these custom-built conservation drones do more than simply offer researchers a better perspective on the massive creatures, though — they collect snot without the cost of a major expedition.
Also called “blow,” snot is a material whales exhale from their lungs when they surface, and it can tell researchers a great deal about the mammals.
A recent snot-collecting mission in Frederick Sound, Alaska was filmed for the National Geographic TV special Earth Live.
“It’s almost staggering the amount of information we’re collecting from this totally benign research tool,” said Iain Kerr, CEO of Ocean Alliance.
As the drone flies over the whale, the creature exhales multiple times. The drone then can easily collect DNA and stress and pregnancy hormones, as well as viruses, bacteria and toxins.
Researchers simply wait on a nearby ship for the SnotBot to return with the samples. Then the snot is analyzed using artificial intelligence (AI) to produce real-time data for research and conservation initiatives.
No Observer Effect
By using drones, these researchers and conservationists can have a positive impact on the animals they’re studying without coming in direct contact with them. This distance is a key element of any animal study, according to WildTrack’s Jewell.
“If we change the behavior or ecology of the animals we study, we risk getting back unreliable data that are not representative of the normal population,” she said.
While some are concerned that the presence of conservation drones alone is enough to stress animals, Jewell believes that with the right precautions, such as flying at sufficient altitudes and following local regulations, this stress can be avoided.
“Drones have huge potential to help in conservation,” said Jewell. “They have increasingly impressive capability, but with this comes an increasing need for responsible use.”