Conservation from the Skies: Are Drones the Future for Great Apes Conservation?

By Conor Gask, Associate Programme Officer, Great Apes Survival Partnership

Tracking an Orangutan is a great challenge for scientists and rescue teams, often spending days in tough forest habitat (by Sumatran Orangutan Society)

It’s only my second week since joining the Great Ape Survival Partnership (GRASP), and I am asked to join a call with a partner working on the ground in Indonesia, rescuing orangutans from fires that whipped across the region during last year’s dry season. Teams have been working hard across Kalimantan to improve responses to the fires, bolster orangutan rescue projects and relocate them to areas away from the devastation.

On the other end of the call, a partner goes through their progress to date, orangutan numbers saved and in rehabilitation, successful releases and establishment of regular fire fighting patrols; great progress is being made and the funding is making a big difference. Fire patrol teams are mentioned in more detail, and this is where I hear they are now using drones — literally unmanned aircraft — to search the forest for fire outbreaks. Where efforts to reach a fire could originally take hours navigating harsh forest terrain,a drone can now cut this down to minutes, saving vast amounts of time in both confirming an outbreak and responding. The drones have also been used to take aerial photographs of the rainforest, identifying burned areas where displaced or injured orangutans are likely to be found.

A drone locates an orangutan via aerial photography

Drones are low-cost, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that have been used to improve wildlife conservation efforts in a variety of settings, from monitoring tigers in Nepal to tracking whales off the coast of Japan. Further, I find that there are teams working on the technology from Liverpool all the way to Canberra, developing drone technologies applicable to a wide range of environmental settings. Even big tech companies are involved, with Google launching UAVs to fight rhino poaching across Africa and Asia.

Dr. Debbie Saunders works on drone technology at the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra, and has developed UAVs that can detect signals from transmitters weighing as little as one gram. She describes the deployment process for technology step by step, and it keys on the ability to tag animals with tiny transmitters.

“We go to the area where we tagged our animals and find a place where there is a gap in the canopy where we can launch the Wildlife Drone,” Dr. Saunders said. “Since it is a multi-rotor drone it launches vertically so there is no need for a runway or landing strip. Once in the air it is switched to robot mode and does a full 360 degree rotation searching for the tagged animals. It tracks one tag at a time, but can be switched between up to 10 different tag numbers remotely while in flight. If a signal is detected we can see the information live on a google map including the direction the signal is coming from, how strong the signal is and how confident we are about the estimated location. All this is displayed live on a google map enabling rapid detection of location and enabling on-ground teams to find the tagged animal immediately.”

It sounds like something from a sci-fi movie, UAVs hovering above the tree canopy carrying out sweeps of the surrounding area via three-point 360-degree rotations, with the signal strength and estimated location displayed in real time. She continues to describe the merits of the system: the whole process of locating a tagged animal can take less than 10 minutes, without a team ever having to leave the launch site, and the disturbance of the tracked animals is minimized in their natural environment. Even the benefits to work health and safety are outlined, with trackers avoiding often dangerous trips into unpredictable terrain.

Dr Debbie Saunders, Australia National University, holding a robotic radio-tracking drone (Dr Debbie Saunders)

I am not completely new to the concept of tracking animals. During my dissertation project I studied harbour seal populations in the North Sea, using tracking data to measure their global range. From a relatively small amount of data (arranged in huge files), I mapped global area suitable as habitat, predicting changes in harbour seal range under future climate change scenarios. However, I remember listening to the travails of my thesis advisor at University of St.Andrews, Dr. Lars Boehme, who would often spend weeks out in the North Sea, or down in the Antarctic tracking down signals from tagged species.

Marine mammals are ideal for ‘tweeting’ data on sea temperature, depth and a diverse range of other factors, due to a thick layer of blubber. A VHF tag or GPS tracker can be glued to their bodies without causing any discomfort, and they swim around acting as a beacon of environmental data. But what does this have to do with conservation of great apes species?

Well,actually, a lot. Great apes live primarily in rainforests and woodlands, which are changing under the pressures of increasing global temperatures. Collecting ground data for temperature in deep rainforests is no easier than tracking an ape, but what if an ape could act as a living source of data? A drone sent periodically to collect information from a transmitter attached to an individual is not out of the question, and would vastly improve understanding of the range and conditions they ideally inhabit. A species such as the orangutan, able to cover vast distances in the forest in short time periods, would provide rich data on the state of the vulnerable forest ecosystems they inhabit. Devices such as cameras and acoustic traps would further support data collection, using drones to collect memory data periodically.

Professor Serge Wich, based at Liverpool John Moores University, is a professor in primate biology currently focusing his studies on the Sumatran orangutan. He founded ConservationDrones.org, promoting the study and use of drones for a variety of conservation applications, and is also the Chair of GRASP’s Scientific Commission. Professor Wich has worked on drone technology extensively, and believes the technology is essential to future conservation efforts.

Serge Wich taking a drone out for a test ride (Jeff Kerby)

“Drones are already revolutionizing the way in which we can collect data on animal abundance and their habitats,” Professor Wich said. “But that is just a start. The current developments on using drones to track tags on animals and upload data stored on those tags will not only allow us to be much more efficient in our data collection, but it will also enable us to track animals in areas that are too remote of humans to access without incurring large costs. All this should enable us to improve biodiversity conservation.”

Attaching a tracking device to an ape is not so simple, as an individual must firstly be immobilized. Within the scientific community, it is widely accepted that individuals of wild populations should not be tagged, as the process of immobilization and tagging can have a significant impact on an ape’s behaviour, and in many cases they are likely not to forget. These often heavy devices can also restrict movement, resulting in them simply pulling off the tracking device and throwing it into dense forest. Considering they have long arms able to reach all parts of their body, an implanted GPS device is easily removable, and social grooming usually uncovers what an individual ape cannot. However, to be able to collect data over time from a species that can travel vast distances poses a variety of benefits that need to be explored.

It is easy to forget that with advancements in the use of technology, there will always be some who try to take advantage for their own benefit and to the detriment of the goals these technologies attempt to achieve. A strong example here in the context of great apes conservation is the potential for poachers, or their dealers, to use tracking data to locate individual apes, or in many cases due to the strong social aspect of many ape species, entire groups. In advancing the use of innovative technologies in great apes conservation, it is essential that we remain a step ahead of those looking to cash in on poaching and bushmeat activities.

The idea of drones hovering over the forests keeping tabs on our endangered apes, beaming information down to the teams who work so hard on the ground, is very exciting to me, especially in a world where threats to these species are becoming ever more pronounced. Novel technologies, and existing ones used in novel ways, have the potential to revolutionize the way we monitor and maintain endangered species populations. As these technologies become cheaper and more accessible, it is essential that they are rolled out to teams working on the ground to conserve great ape species. When targeted in the right areas, and with more teams starting to include these fantastic innovations in their conservation arsenal, the possibilities for protecting endangered species are well worth thinking about.

Conor Gask is an Associate Programme Officer at the Great Apes Survival Partnership, a unique alliance of 105 national governments, research institutions, conservation organizations, U.N. agencies and private companies committed to the long-term survival of great apes and their habitat in Africa and Asia.

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