Conflict & Justice

Wildlife preservation: A gentler side of the drone debate


Orangutans like this one are critically endangered, but drones are helping conservationists keep an eye on the giant apes and other animals.



Sumatran orangutans are a critically endangered species. The most intelligent of all primates, orangutans are only found in two places on earth, one of which is Sumatra. But conservationists and those looking to study the animals can't always see them from the ground, and daily monitoring expeditions into the rainforest are costly and impractical. 

Luckily, a solution has been found. 

Serge Wich, a professor at the Research Center in Evolutionary Anthropology and Paleoecology at Liverpool John Moores University and his partner Lian Pin Koh, assistant professor of applied ecology and conservation at ETH Zurich, have designed a drone that can fly just high enough over the treetops where the orangutans nest to check in on them daily. 

"These areas are huge and difficult to monitor on a regular basis, so doing ground surveys is not the answer unless we had millions of dollars to do this all the time," said Wich to Scientific American magazine. "So we need a means to get effective, timely and high-resolution data. Drones can help us with this because we can fly them whenever we like, and they provide us with high-resolution data whenever we like."

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Wich and Koh's Conservation Drones cost about $2,000 and are specifically designed for conservationists and researchers working in developing countries. They fly for less than an hour and only have a 25 km range, but that's enough for the drones to have an impact on how science can help protect animals.

The technology is also useful not just to watch tree-dwelling creatures, but those on the ground as well, and because there is such an emphasis on affordability, anyone who wants a drone can get one. 

According to the Conservation Drone website, besides Indonesia, the drones have been deployed as far as Malaysia, Nepal and Tanzania.

In Nepal, the drones are being used by park rangers looking to quell poaching of tigers and rhinos, as well as monitor the habitats of the highly endangered animals without disturbing them. Knowing there's a drone around may also serve as a deterrent to poachers and illegal loggers, who are contributing to the problem through deforestation.  

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“As the global poaching crisis escalates, WWF is excited by the potential of technologies like UAVs to aid rangers on the frontline and better protect Nepal’s natural heritage,” said Shubash Lohani, Deputy Director of WWF’s Eastern Himalayas Program on the WWF website. 

The drones may even have some important technical updates soon, which would make anti-poaching efforts all the easier. 

Wich said the Conservation Drones will be outfitted with software that would enable the drones to recognize specific objects, such as people or elephants, in the "not-too-distant future." 

"That would help the response time of antipoaching patrols but it would also facilitate any scientific research, as it’s quite a lot effort to go through thousands of photos to look for particular objects," he said. "That would help us a lot to use these drones even more effectively."

For more of GlobalPost's coverage of the good, bad and ugly of drones, check out our Special Report "The Drone Age: Why we should fear global proliferation of UAVs."