Drones and the future of conservation

Around the world, conservationists are using drones to protect endangered species and battle wildlife crime

by: Muneer Huda, Staff Writer

The drone wars have begun and battle lines are drawn. Privacy stands on one side and possibilities on the other. It hardly seems like a fair fight. The possibilities are endless, as we’re learning day by day, and the best privacy can do is reach a compromise.

Drones are quickly swooping into the commercial sector, from helping property owners sell homes to delivering pizza. Amazon caused a buzz on 60 minutes with their demo of Amazon Prime Air, an urban delivery system capable of dropping packages right to your doorstep in half an hour.  The Octocopter drone is far from urban reality, but Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, believes it’s only a matter of time.

Last month, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced six test sites for commercial drone use. Over the next few months the FAA hopes to draft rules and regulations needed to safely use drones and protect people’s privacy. Meanwhile, there are some states that have already banned private and law-enforcement drone use.

But drones are riding a global wave, and it’s only getting bigger. We’re coming to understand that drones aren’t just tools of destruction, as portrayed by the military, but simply tools. Their utility is only limited by the human imagination.

For instance, have you heard of drones being used to combat crimes against wildlife in Nepal? Or plan orangutan rescue operations in Indonesia? Or use thermal imaging cameras to identify poachers in Kenya?

Just like the commercial sector, conservationists are discovering the possibilities with drones and are using them to preserve nature and protect wildlife.

Drones and conservation

Drones and conservation are a fresh match. Until recently, drones had been too expensive for NGOs and researchers to afford. Besides, someone had to take the leap to show others the way.

Conservation Drones was started by professors Lian Pin Koh and Serge Wich. Their research interests in conservation and mammals brought them together in 2011. Their imagination and boyish curiosity is what led to Conservation Drones.

Koh and Wich realized that commercial drones were not an option for the average research budget. Drones needed to be cheaper, with the type of accessories that benefited researchers, like high definition cameras.

After a successful demo flight in North Sumatra, Indonesia, Koh and Wich were overwhelmed by the response from fellow researchers. Since then, Conservation Drones have taken flight all over the world. There are other organizations like Research Drones, and individuals who are stepping up to use drones for conservation in all kinds of creative ways.

In Nepal, drones are being used by the WWF and the Nepal army to protect the greater one-horned rhinoceros from poachers. In Belize, the fisheries department and Wildlife Conservation Society are considering using drones to monitor illegal fishing activities off the coast. In Kenya, drones – and chilli powder – are being used to scare away elephants from areas with known poaching activity.

In Indonesia, the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP) is using drones in ways that would make a CIA operative’s job sound mundane.

The rainforests of Sumatra is a species rich ecosystem and is home to many critically endangered animals, including tigers, rhinos, elephants and orangutans. Parts of the forest are covered by peat swamp, which are carbon rich storage vaults. Globally, peatlands store as much as 500 billion metric tons of carbon, twice as much as trees all around the world. Yet they only cover three per cent of the globe.

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