Eyes in the sky: The incredible technology helping save Asia’s wildlife

Drones can be an affordable and time-saving tool in wildlife conservation

A few years ago, two young wildlife biologists were struggling to study Orangutan nests in the dense jungles of northern Sumatra in Indonesia—one of the most threatened rainforests on Earth. Locating the primate nests hidden high up on treetops in the dense forest was not only difficult, it was also extremely expensive, the cost racking up to thousands of dollars with each and every attempt. It was then that the pair had the idea of flying a remote controlled model plane over the rainforest instead. They launched an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) or drone, as they’re now ubiquitously known as, into the air and waited to see what came back.

One of duo, Lian Pin Koh, remembers this first mission. ‘It was particularly nerve wracking because we were not certain that the drone would return to us after that mission,’ he admits. To Koh’s pleasant surprise the unmanned aircraft did indeed return, and with high quality imagery and video of the vast Sumatran rainforests. ‘Upon seeing the quality of that data, we were convinced of the potential of this technology [for use in] in conservation,’ he says.

That was three years ago. Since then the researchers—Lian Pin Koh and Serge Wich have founded ConservationDrones, a non-profit that has introduced the use of drone technology in wildlife research and management across the South Asia Pacific region.

Photo by ConservationDrones
Photo by Wildlife Institute of India

Once the sole preserve of the military, rapid advances in technology over recent years have driven down the costs of the machines and lead to a booming civilian appetite for the tech. When combined with cameras, drones have also assumed the mantle of an invaluable conservation tool right across the world. They’re now being used to deter rhino and elephant poaching in Africa, to track seals in the freezing arctic terrain, to monitor seabirds in Australia and collect mucus from whales’ blowholes off the coast of Argentina.

In Southeast Asia—a region that faces widespread deforestation due to developments in industrial agriculture, forestry and mining—drones can be a crucial asset in conservation work according to Koh. ‘Biologists are racing against time to document and understand the remaining biodiversity to develop better management and conservation strategies. This often is an uphill battle for limited funding resources in conservation,’ he says. ‘But drones can be a very affordable tool for surveying and monitoring wildlife and these natural habitats.’

The rhino grasslands at the foothills of the Himalayas in Nepal are a part of the world where drones have been used in wildlife management. Here, at the Chitwan National Park, known for large mammals such as the Asian elephant and the Bengal tiger, six drones costing about $2000 each were brought in two years ago. Dr Christy Williams, Asian Rhino and Elephant Programme Leader from the World Wildlife Fund said the team first considered using UAVs after a rhino poaching incident where it took the forest rangers four hours to traverse the park to find the carcass. By then the poachers had crossed over to India with the horn.

This made him look for ‘some kind of technology that could have helped them reach the place faster,’ he says. The drones act as deterrents for possible wildlife crimes in Nepal but are also used regularly for monitoring the park. ‘When a group of rangers basically walk in the tall rhino grasslands of Chitwan they see nothing apart from five metre on either side,’ points out Williams. ‘Even well equipped parks with their staff can’t patrol the entire park.’ But with drones, rangers have quick and affordable access to a bird’s eye view of their patrolling areas.The drones in Chitwan are also used to survey areas prone to forest fires in the hot months, check for timber logging and the team plans to use infrared cameras for night-time drone surveys in the future.

In the neighbouring country of India drones have been used for monitoring tiger populations in central India’s Panna Tiger Reserve. The drones made it possible to map large extents of tiger habitat in a relatively short period of time and at low cost. Ramesh Krishamurthy from Wildlife Institute of India (WII) that carried out the use of UAV in Panna says the Park’s 55km river, where most poacher infiltration goes on, was physically impossible to monitor previously, but drones helped keep an eye on the region. Fitted with high-quality cameras, they can provide geo-tagged photos and videos more accurate and qualitative than what could be collected on foot over a limited timeframe.

Drones also make places of challenging and dangerous terrains easier to access now. Krishnamurthy is part of WII’s plan to pilot test drones in 10 different wildlife parks in India, spanning from elephant terrains to mangrove swamps where they will also be used to mitigate man-animal conflict among other uses.

Developing countries on a limited budget often can’t afford modes such as helicopter aerial surveys, he says. Even where they could, drones are preferred over choppers for being much safer. According to a study in Wildlife Society Bulletin, air crashes were the leading cause of death in wildlife biologists in the United States between 1937 and 2000 killing as many as 91 researchers in the field.

In spite of their potential, drones are still a relatively new technology in conservation and—like any new tech—have their share of glitches. Rangers need to think of UAVs as part of their toolkits just like a walkie-talkie, although getting used to them can take a bit practice. Krishnamurthy says customising drones based on what they are required for, the areas they will be used in, as well as other location specific factors will work best for ensuring their suitability across a variety of different conservation projects.

Photo by ConservationDrones
Photo by Wildlife Institute of India

However, a big obstacle for drone technology in conservation work remains the lack of clear government regulatory guidelines for their use. Several wildlife pilot projects have stalled or fizzled out due to red tape. Drones are also seen as a threat to security and privacy. Even India’s upcoming drone-based projects are taking a lot more paperwork than expected, says Williams. ‘Drones are a new and different technology for governments to regulate. They are constantly getting better and cheaper. However, those who are in charge of making decisions on whether to allow them or not are often not clued in. They don’t understand the technology and tend to take the easy way out by postponing permissions.’ Even in Nepal where the army is in charge of the forest management, monthly permission to fly UAVs in the park is needed.

Drones are also limited by their range. However, Koh envisions that this will get better in the next few years as battery technology continues to improve. Even in terms of regulatory frameworks there’s rapid improvement in countries like Canada and Australia too, he adds.

The troubleshooting now lies in helping finetune UAVs for future use. Drones in conservation may be far from perfect right now, but the good news is they’re always getting better.