By April Overall
Drones. We’re already using them to capture the moment as couples say “I do”. And in no time at all, they’ll be dropping off your next book club pick at your door step. But did you know that drones might become a central tool for wildlife conservation too? Until recently, conservation biologists were required to make the trek on foot, climb tall trees, or travel by helicopters and planes to track wildlife. There were no guarantees that they’d be able to get a clear photo or even the most accurate data. And sending researchers out to remote locations can be costly and time consuming. Read on to explore how drones are changing the game for wildlife conservation.
Drones in Canada
One cannot write a story about the use of drones in wildlife conservation research within Canada without giving credit to Dr. David Bird, an Emeritus Professor of wildlife biology at McGill University and the Founding Editor of The Journal of Unmanned Vehicle Systems. Alongside his colleagues, Paul Pace, a retired Canadian government drone expert, as well as James Junda, a former Masters student of David Bird’s, they are working in tandem to push this technology to new heights in the name of conservation.
Researchers like Bird typically use two basic drones in their research: fixed-wing and rotary machines often referred to as Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) or drones. Fixed-wing UAS look quite similar to planes, but are naturally much smaller and can fly for up to 20 hours (ideal for beyond the line of sight research like tracking whale pods). Rotary machines on the other hand resemble tiny helicopters and fly for 20 minutes on average (perfect for snapping pictures of bird nests). What they do with them is nothing short of amazing.
Bird and his colleagues are currently working to track song sparrows on the Gulf Islands. Researchers at the University of Western Ontario have affixed radio transmitters on these birds to study their local movements and find their nests. Currently, researchers are forced to walk all over the island with a hand-held antenna and receiver in the hopes that they’ll pick up radio signals from the birds and find their location. But Bird has a better plan. This fall he and Pace are affixing a small receiver to a rotary drone to track down the birds. When they fly the drone over the island, the receiver will tell researchers where the song sparrows have decided to nest.
Controlling Invasive Species
Researchers in the United States have found that drones can even help weed out invasive species. In Hawaii’s Haleakala National Park, an invasive weed called miconia has posed a threat to the native plants in the area. In 2012, researchers used a drone to fly over the park and snap pictures, in the hopes of identifying the areas that miconia lay.
Researchers retrieved the drone and its pictures and were able to locate the areas where the weed was rampant so rangers could remove them.
In Kenya and Nepal, elephants and rhinoceroses are at a high risk of being killed by poachers for their tusks. To combat this appalling practice, conservationists are using drones to spot poachers so authorities can stop them in their tracks. “It’s more the threat that the plane could be up there that might make poachers think twice about going after illegally caught game,” says Bird. “In Nepal, it’s working well. The poaching is going down to almost zero per cent because of the use of drones.”
Learning Preferred Nesting Locations
Bird and Pace have begun working with a farmer who owns a hobby farm in Kincardine, Ontario. Tom Franklin grows alfalfa for his cows, however he’s learned that bobolinks like nesting in his crops. In order to save the nests during harvest, the threesome plan to fly a drone with an infrared camera installed on it over the field. The camera will hopefully pick up the heat signatures that a warm nest will give off, and thus, its location so Franklin can avoid the nests during harvest.
Here’s a sobering stat. Light-aircraft crashes are the number one killer of wildlife biologists. A 2003 study in the Wildlife Society Bulletin found that between 1937 and 2000, a whopping 91 biologists and scientists were killed in plane or helicopter crashes. Moreover, 60 of the 91 flights were flying at low altitudes in order to observe and track wildlife. While drones will not replace wildlife biologists whilst tracking wildlife, “you still have to go where you want to do your work,” says Bird. “If you want to study polar bears in the Arctic you still need to go to the Arctic. And there are times you need manned aircraft. Counting wolf packs, for example, cannot be done with a rotary machine as it requires tracking the wolves beyond line of sight, something that is rarely permitted by Transport Canada at this time.”
Checking on Nests
Researching nesting birds of prey is particularly difficult considering many species nest on ledges on steep cliffs or in lofty trees. To even attempt to learn how many eggs or nestlings a pair has produced usually requires researchers to climb to the nests, which is time-consuming, stresses the adult birds, and is dangerous. Or they might resort to manned helicopters which are more obtrusive, life-threatening, and not very green. Bird and Junda have used rotary machines to capture all of that information for osprey, bald eagle, ferrunginous hawk and red-tailed hawk nests. Even better, the quality of the images that drones have been able to obtain allows researchers to estimate the ages of the nestlings and evaluate how males and females have reacted to the drone.
Assessing the Health of Wildlife Populations
It’s no secret that most kinds of human activity disturb wildlife. Researchers have found that using drones bearing cameras has been incredibly advantageous at capturing intimate moments in the lives of individual animals, as most don’t seem phased by these machines. Recently, Canadian researchers used a drone to hover just 30 metres over a killer whale pod off the coast of British Columbia to assess the health of the members. With the data, they were able to access which whales were malnourished and which were pregnant.
Fascinated by drones? Don’t miss next month’s story about the setbacks these machines face and also the promises they pose for the conservation world.