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  • Writer's pictureSimon Golstein

Ten interesting ways that drones are changing the face of conservation

Human beings aren't the only creatures that benefit from the age of drones - they're proving themselves to be real game-changers in the field of conservation.


From unobtrusive observation for research purposes to active intervention against poachers, and even saving the lives of conservationists, drones may be the best thing to happen for the environment since the development of the ozone layer. In this article, we’ll look at some interesting ways that drones are being used to aid in environmental conservation.



Saving baby deer


Across Europe, tens of thousands of fawns die a gruesome death every year when they are run over by mowing machinery on farms. This happens because deer instinctively hide their young in tall vegetation to protect against predators, and the tall vegetation is cut by heavy-duty machinery. Furthermore, fawn will freeze in place when faced with danger, so they don’t move out of the way on their own.


For farmers, apart from the moral unpleasantness, deer carcasses can ruin machinery and pollute the crops, which in turn kills other animals that eat them. In the past, farmers would have to sweep through the fields with dogs and a team of people, which was time-consuming and - as the numbers indicate - not very effective.


Drones have given farmers a way to save the lives of these beautiful creatures.


Their thermal cameras enable them to effectively find fawns and move them before mowing starts. For example, this technique saved 450 fawns in Graubünden, Switzerland. The method is so effective that the German Federal Office for Food and Agriculture allocated three million euros to subsidize farmers who wanted to buy drones for this purpose.


A fawn hiding in tall grass. Credit: pxfuel


Tagging whales


It’s difficult to keep track of whales - apart from the fact that they spend 80 percent of their lives under the sea, their range is enormous. But this information is needed in order to create protection strategies as these animals are threatened by shipping lane conflicts, climate change, habitat loss and so on. Tagging is the only effective way to keep track of these majestic beasts.


Whale tags are attached with suction cups and give us long-term information about whale movements. In the past, the only way to attach these tags was by approaching a surfacing whale with a boat and physically placing the tag with a long pole. As you can imagine, this was dangerous and stressful for everyone involved, not to mention prohibitively expensive.


Drones have made the process significantly easier - they simply hover above a whale and drop a tag on its back when it surfaces. The boat doesn't even need to get close, with drones successfully attaching tags to whales up to 500 meters from the launch boat. And it even works with fast-moving Fin whales which can travel at almost 50 kph.


Research drone over humpback whales, Sydney. Credit: VPirotta, Wikipedia Commons


Replacing tags


Tags are not always an ideal way to track wildlife. Attaching them in the first place involves tranquilizing an animal, which is traumatic even when done with care. Furthermore, numerous studies have shown that tags have a detrimental effect on animal behavior - one study found that northern fur seals swim more slowly and with a heightened metabolism when tagged, while another revealed that black rhinos with tracking collars were having fewer calves.


Luckily for rhinos, drones can do a lot of the things that tags did. For example, AI-equipped drones have been used in Namibia to search for, identify, and then track rhinos, with great success. And they're good for seals too...


Two rhinoceroses, Namibia 2016. Credit: Martin Junius, Wikipedia Commons


Measuring seals


Global warming has affected the ice caps, reducing the natural habitat of pinnipeds like seals. In the interests of preserving their population, researchers need to be able to measure their body size and mass because it gives an indication of the general health of the surrounding ecosystem. In the past, the only way to do this was by sedating an animal and manually measuring/weighing it, which was accurate but invasive, risky to the animals’ health, and logistically challenging.


In Cape Shirref, Livingstone Island, Antarctica, researchers used drones to measure the size and weight of leopard seals. To check accuracy, they captured 15 healthy adult seals, manually measured and weighed them, and then used drones to calculate the measurements (ensuring that identification marks were removed to avoid bias). They found that body size could be measured within 2 percent accuracy, and mass within 5 percent.


Leopard seal, Tabarin Peninsula. Credit: Andrew Shiva, Wikipedia Commons


Counting animals


Drones are great at counting things. Researchers from the University of Adelaide tested this by placing thousands of plastic ducks on a beach and sending ground teams of experienced wildlife researchers to count them. Overhead, drones did the same. The results were overwhelming - the drones were between 43 and 96 percent more accurate, the difference being the quality of the camera. They didn’t miss any ducks, didn’t count the same duck twice, and finished the job much faster. This has real-life applications - such as counting orangutan nests.


Orangutans spend much of their time in nests that they build in the branches of trees. This provides a handy way of keeping track of populations, which is very important because their population is declining due to deforestation. In the past, counting these nests has been limited by the observation abilities of people walking along the ground. Helicopters have been used, but these are loud and invasive, too expensive for many NGOs to use, and ineffective at collecting precise data. Drones are a much more effective way of accurately counting nests with minimal interference - in 2021, researchers used drones to collect nest data in 48 survey areas across 76 square kilometers.


Orangutan in a nest, Borneo. Credit: Joeavision1, Wikipedia Commons


Fighting poachers


Poaching is a huge problem. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, 448 rhinos were poached in 2022, and African elephant populations have fallen by around 30 percent since 2006 (five elephants were shot in one week in Chad in April 2023). Nor are the animals the only victims of poachers - rangers who stand in their way are murdered too. According to the Thin Green Line Foundation, 595 rangers were killed between 2009 and 2016, and there were two deaths a week in 2018.


80 percent of poaching happens at night. A wise choice on the part of the poachers - but how can they be caught?


First of all, the very presence of a drone is a deterrent to poachers. In 2014 in Kruger National Park in South Africa, which is twice the size of Yellowstone (and where 124 rhinos were killed in 2022), a ranger patrolled an area with a drone for six weeks. No killings were recorded while the drones were airborne.


Patrolling these vast areas is impossible for ground teams, but drones make it possible. Thermal cameras enable operators to find and protect animals. They can also carry sirens to scare animals into running away - in some cases they can even be used to herd them in certain directions. Thermal cameras also detect poachers at night, enabling rangers to react with the required force and without surprises - saving even more lives.


Scaring elephants


Elephants are scared of drones, possibly because they sound like bees. This has come in handy in Tanzania, where elephant populations are rising due to anti-poaching measures. The animals come into conflict with locals by trampling and eating their crops, in response to which the locals shoot at them or even poison them. Drones have been found to have a 100 percent success rate in scaring elephants away safely.

Elephant herd photographed with drone, Benin. Credit: Michozounou Franck Wilfried, Wikipedia Commons


Preventing fires


Peat is a layer of partially decayed vegetable matter. Peatlands, or bogs, are important ecosystems, providing a haven for plants, animals, and an important source of drinking water for people. They can be found in most countries in the world and store almost one-third of the planet’s soil carbon, despite only covering 3 percent of the land planet’s land area. This concentration of carbon makes peat a great material for burning, and it’s been used by people as fuel for centuries. But this also makes it a fire hazard. Once alight, peat will burn for a long time, won’t be extinguished by light rain, and can even smolder underground and reignite. The damage caused from peat fires is immense - peat fires in Borneo in 2002-2003 released hundreds of millions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere.


The Borneo Nature Foundation set up a drone center in 2021 to combat peat fires. They use thermal cameras to monitor large swathes of land, collecting data pre, during, and post-fire. It means that no fires are missed, and they are stamped out before they get too big.


Peat fire still smoldering after six weeks, Northern Territory, Australia. Credit: Geoff Whalan, flickr


Landfills


Sadly, poaching isn’t the only illegal human activity that harms the environment. Worldwide, millions of tons of waste are dumped in unapproved places and the consequences are terrible. Chemicals seep into surrounding soil, damaging fertility and even infecting food supplies. Animals that eat from these sites can get sick and/or trapped, and if they are close to a water source, they contaminate the water, poisoning fish and carrying harmful materials far downstream. They create a fire hazard, and the stagnant water that collects in refuse like tires greatly multiply mosquito populations.


Drones provide a solution by greatly enhancing the ability of authorities to close down illegal landfills. Previously, they relied on tip-offs from the public, because it’s easy to hide landfills in secluded areas. Drones allow them to scan huge areas from above and stop new sites before they grow to big. In Bari, Italy, where the authorities had only a 20 percent success rate in fighting illegal landfills, the municipality commissioned a project called DRONE-TECH that does exactly that.


And finally… saving conservationists themselves


Biologist D. Blake Sasse from the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission published an ongoing study that found that air crashes accounted for 66 percent of wildlife biologist deaths, with 31 such incidents between 2001 and 2021.


At the Snake River in Idaho, the Idaho Power Company, which controls the Hells Canyon Dam, would fly helicopters to count Chinook salmon nests. Biologists would simply look down from the helicopter’s open door - but in 2010, two biologists and the pilot were killed in a crash.


Since then, they use drones. Not only is there no risk to human life, the count is far more accurate. They can review footage, and the high-quality cameras allow them to note conjoined nests, something which was often missed from the helicopters. They can cover more ground and can also fly in bad weather that would ground a crewed helicopter.

Conservationists from WWF launching drone, 2012. Credit: Cliffspiration, Wikipedia Commons

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