How can drones be used to help save animals?

Emerging technologies are playing an increasing role in protecting precious wildlife across the world. Drones, in particular, have huge potential in tracking animals and humans who might try to poach them, and in convincing those in power that more must be done to legislate for their survival.

In 1964, the IUCN established a “red list” of threatened species, a database of endangered life and an essential tool for conservation policy. For these species, drone technology could be a gamechanger.

Fighting Wildlife Crime

Drones are being used to act as wildlife police tracking poachers in places like Kenya and Nepal. In 2012, Google provided the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) with a $5 million grant to launch aerial surveillance in remote areas in Africa and Asia, where endangered species like elephants and rhinoceroses are most vulnerable to illegal trafficking. The increased conservation efforts, partly due to the drones, has been extremely successful, with poaching rates in Kenya falling 90% since 2012

Beyond poaching, unmanned aircraft are tackling illegal fishing, hunting, and burning, especially where there is a lack of available human resources. 

In the Danube river, for example, law enforcement officials are not able to monitor large stretches of river and coastline for illegal fishing, as there are not enough people available to patrol the river 24/7. To save the critically endangered Sturgeon fish populations, drones are being used to find vessels that are over their catch limits, fishing without permits, or in restricted waters. They can then gather video that will be useful for the police in making arrests.

Collecting Population Data

In the past, to monitor population sizes, humans would have to use a helicopter to get a bird’s eye view. They would then have to manually count the number of animals they could see using binoculars, before writing the numbers down by hand. For animals that herd together, like penguins, this is incredibly difficult.

Using drones, however, human error is reduced. This is because when drones take digital footage above the population, scientists do not have to contend with obscured animals and can digitally review their counts as many times as needed. This reduces the likelihood of both missing an individual and counting an individual more than once.

Gathering population data as quickly and accurately as possible is vital to enable timely assessment of the implications of any decline in numbers. This provides a stronger evidence base on which to make management decisions. For species and ecosystems threatened with extinction or irreparable damage, such speedy action could be a lifeline.

Getting up close

Drones also make it safer for researchers to do their work, at less cost. By getting nearer to animals than people often can, drones take intimate photographs. This makes it easier for scientists to identify individual markings and to verify if they’ve seen this animal before. 
Piloted by scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Vancouver Aquarium, in 2014 a hexacopter drone hovered above a group of killer whales off British Columbia, Canada – to record specific behaviours of the whales. What’s more, with images from the drone, scientists were able get a better picture of which whales were malnourished, which were pregnant, and which were likely to die – much more information than can be gathered from a helicopter.

Helping Forest Conservation

Habitat destruction is one of the leading causes of animal extinction in the world but it also has hugely important consequences for humans. Indeed, one quarter of harmful carbon emissions in the world’s atmosphere now come directly from the forestry, agriculture and land-use industries.

To help, researchers are using drones to help plant trees from the air. Originally designed by BioCarbon Engineering, the drones scan terrain and fly over the area autonomously – planting biodegradable seed pods with a scattering mechanism that mimics nature.  

At a time when school children across the world have been walking out of classrooms in their hundreds of thousands to force governments to act on climate change, new technology could significantly help governments to secure the future health and prosperity of species across the world.

Do you have any other topics you’d like us to cover or have any other technology queries? If so, leave a comment in the section below.

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