Gallery: Droning for the Planet: How Conservationists Use Drones to Pro...

Photo by Conservation Drones
In several protected areas in Southeast Asia, the Indian Sub-continent, and Africa, drones are now being used to spot rhinos and elephants and track their movements. Drones also interact with elephants tagged with iPhone-like transponders that measure stress levels (which go up when being chased and hunted) and look for poachers at night. UAVs are being used to cruise beaches in Gabon to count leatherback turtle nests, chimpanzee nests, and elephants enjoying the sunset. They are counting orangutan nests in Borneo and deforestation fronts in Madagascar and Sumatra. If the drones turn out to be inexpensive, rugged, and user-friendly, they can greatly reduce the costs and time required for ground-truthing habitat maps, creating stitched ortho-rectified imagery maps linked to spatial databases and satellite imagery, monitoring species populations, logging, fires, and poaching activity, and giving a bit more of an edge to those trying to protect biodiversity in the last refuges of nature. Drones can allow rangers to react in real time to threats, and their new capabilities should act as a deterrent worthy of respect.

Photo by Conservation Drones

Twenty years ago I had a tsetse fly-filled conversation with some hardened and battle-scarred rangers about how to count rhinos in the very thick Miombo woodlands of southern Tanzania. Over the droning of those persistent and painful flies, we talked of getting a hobbyists’ radio-controlled airplane and attaching an infrared video camera for night flights to pick up the heat signatures of rhinos. Only elephants would have a bigger glow, so identification would be simple. Lots of ground could be surveyed, dense, dangerous thickets could be avoided, and poachers’ fires could be easily located by the handful of rangers responsible for a vast protected area. But small, infrared video cameras were not yet readily available to non-military types – ditto satellite tracking and GPS – and the hand-held radio range of the planes of the day was rather limited, so the rangers continued to walk transects and gingerly pick their way through tangled thickets, the haunts of slumbering and cranky rhinos and well-armed poachers.

In those twenty years since talking with the rangers, rhino and elephant populations have been decimated―only a handful of northern white rhinos still live in the wild―and the demand and prices for black market rhino horn and ivory are skyrocketing. Will the recent advent of the cost-effective, versatile unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)―the drones of our dreams―turn the tide in the fight for rhinos and the planet? Just in the past two years cost-effective drones and high-quality imaging capabilities have become readily available to conservationists, activists, researchers, and park managers (the adventurous suburbanite can also pick one up at Barnes & Noble Books).


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