To What Extent Do Drones Really Help Conservation Efforts?

Tourism programmes around the world contribute to the protection of endangered species and environments. Wildlife tourism is perennially popular on every continent, and coastal tourism accounts for an enormous percentage of the global Travel & Tourism activity. From a resort preserving tropical reefs in Indonesia to a conservancy in Kenya protecting the world’s last three white rhino, conservation and tourism often go hand-in-hand. The two are inextricably linked.

As technological advancements provide innovative solutions to some of the world’s most pressing conservation issues, the industry has a vested interest in the outcome. Across the globe, communities and governments use drones for conservation — but to what extent do drones make a tangible difference in the outcomes? Some have hailed drones as the ultimate solution in anti-poaching measures, others are skeptical that drone technology is the predicted panacea. Here’s what those in Travel & Tourism need to know.

How are drones used for conservation?

First let’s understand the drone technology in question. At the most basic, a drone is simply an unmanned aerial vehicle — any remotely-controlled aircraft without a human pilot on board.

Although drones are most widely associated with warfare and military operations, the drones used for conservation are smaller than those used by the military, just one to two meters across, and they are primarily equipped with video and imaging equipment. According to Save the Rhino, conservation drones can “acquire high-resolution photographs, high-definition video footage, and can produce 2D and 3D maps of surveyed areas.” With additional thermal-imaging technology and an ability to easily soar above dense jungle, drones provide surveillance opportunities humans are nearly incapable of producing without a technology assist.

Current conservation drone projects around the world.

The term conservation covers a wide range of activities, from the protection of wildlife to the preservation of biological diversity on land and in the sea. Each new environment, situation, and diverse culture requires a unique solution to its conservation challenges. And where drones are concerned, organizations around the world have risen to the occasion, finding innovative ways pair humans and technology.

From orangutans to beautiful wetlands, conservation monitoring programmes play a vital role in preserving the world’s most endangered animals and ecosystems.

Here are three projects using drone technology conserve, preserve, and protect wildlife and natural ecosystems.

  1. Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP), Indonesia. Working to prevent the extinction of the Sumatran orangutan, which is facing massive habitat loss and poaching, SOCP introduced a drone conservation programmes in 2012 to monitor and track orangutans living in the high jungle canopy. This was once a time-consuming and ineffective task for park rangers observing from the forest floor, but has now seen great continued success by pairing drones with human researchers to then interpret the collected data.
  2. Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Kenya. This Tourism for Tomorrow 2017 finalist pairs tourism with conservation as a way to protect the world’s last three Northern White Rhino, as well as 115 black rhino living within the preserve. Income from the conservancy’s six tourist camps fund most of the programmes, including a drone test programme in 2013 that used thermal imaging to track wildlife and test anti-poaching measures.
  3. Creston Valley Wildlife Management Area, Canada. Catherine Tarasoff, a Canadian ecologist, is pioneering the use of drones to detect and battle invasive plant species. Rather than use field technicians to painstakingly canvass the wetland, Tarasoff partnered with this internationally protected wetland to provide specific, actionable data to find and weed out the yellow flag iris, an invasive flower species. The drones soared 50 meters above the wetland, snapping incredibly detailed landscape photos equipped with GPS tags, allowing conservationists to easily zoom into sections of the wetland and view the flora and fauna.

Opportunities and obstacles with large-scale drone programmes.

Each drone conservation project mentioned, while innovative and trailblazing, also faces a series of challenges that illuminate the obstacles to widespread adoption of drones for conservation.

One overarching issue is the legality of private drones in public airspace. Governments around the world — from the United Kingdom to India to South Africa — have begun implementing strict laws regarding the use of drones for surveillance in and around urban populations. The U.S. National Parks Service has even gone so far as to ban private drones from National Parks in a bid to protect the safety of visitors and wildlife alike. Organizations must temper innovative programmes with the ever-evolving regulations surrounding this nascent industry.

Another key challenge lies in the manpower required to effectively use drones. The Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya did not continue its drone programme after the initial test because it has not “yet identified a robust airframe that can deliver [its] needs.” While the conservancy saw benefits in using drones to aid in its rhino conservation efforts, the drones were not a “‘silver bullet’ to poaching but rather part of a wider tool kit.”

And that is a common refrain among those programmes considering how drone technology could amplify conservation efforts. While some in the industry consider drones the path of the future, others take a nuanced approach.

Drones have a place in conservation when undertaken in a thoughtful, integrative manner

Implementing new drone programmes is still prohibitively expensive and time-consuming for some reserves, organizations, and governments. And Tarasoff, the invasive-species ecologist, admits that there is a “steep learning curve,” but she still “see[s] the unlimited possibilities.” Her drone conservation programme was heralded as a success and could pave the way for continued use of drones in battling invasive species — a problem costing Canada and the U.S. roughly USD $1.4 trillion worth of environmental and economic losses.

At this point, the most successful drone conservation programmes have motivated and trained staff able to integrate the drone-collected imaging and data into the organization’s central mission. The Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme noted that “potential uses for this new technology seem limitless.” In addition to the current use of drones for habitat monitoring, the organization is actively building and adapting the drone technology to better fit its unique situational needs. SOCP hopes future drones will “detect radio transmitter chips implanted into reintroduced orangutans,” allowing the organization to “[monitor] the progress of orangutans newly reintroduced to the wild, something which is not always so easy on foot only.”

SOCP’s success in using drones to monitor orangutan populations jibes with the findings from a recent study out of Monash University. Monash ecologist Dr. Rohan Clarke decided to test if drones were as effective as traditional survey techniques in monitoring the size of wildlife populations. The study’s authors found that “drones are much more precise at monitoring the size of seabird colonies in tropical and polar environments than more traditional ground counts.”

From orangutans to beautiful wetlands, conservation monitoring programmes play a vital role in preserving the world’s most endangered animals and ecosystems. Although drones may not be the panacea to poaching and monitoring touted by some, the case studies to-date clearly indicate that drones have a place in conservation when undertaken in a thoughtful, integrative manner. As such, Travel & Tourism should look to these programmes as one more potential way to ensure conservation tourism efforts support sustainable, responsible stewardship of locations near and far.

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