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Photo: ConservationDrones.org

Drones have taken the world by storm. Used in government excursions to keep tabs on residents, they’re also found in suburban toy stores and electronics shops. Forty years ago, children took model airplanes into the backyard for an afternoon of fun. Now, they pilot the drone daddy gave them for Christmas. With multiple routes to offer, it’s no wonder drones are being looked at as weapons in the fight for wildlife conservation.

The idea dates back to 2012. Ecologist Lian Pin Koh and primatologist Serge Wich began attaching cameras and sensors to remote-controlled airplanes to monitor orangutan populations in Sumatra and Borneo, which have dropped to 6,000 and 69,000 respectively.

Once found across southeast Asia, orangutans now live only on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo. (Photo Credit: Tbachner via WikiMedia Commons)

Once found across southeast Asia, orangutans now live only on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo. (Photo Credit: Tbachner via WikiMedia Commons)

“Almost out of fun, I suggested that we could use remote-controlled airplanes to survey the canopies and count the nests,” says Koh. “We proceeded with experimenting with planes, cameras, and autopilot systems.”

Orangutans are listed as “critically endangered” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN). Numbers have been plummeting since the 1970s, and orangutans face growing threats from poaching and palm oil production in South Asia.

After limited success, Wich and Koh abandoned the airplanes and turned to drones, which they discovered to be less expensive and better suited to gather photos.

Serge Wich and Lian Pin Koh test-flying conservation drone. (Photo Credit: Lian Pin Koh / ConservationDrones.org)

Serge Wich and Lian Pin Koh test-flying conservation drone. (Photo Credit: Lian Pin Koh / ConservationDrones.org)

“Drones have given researchers a whole set of tools to answer a range of questions we couldn’t answer before,” says Wich. “Our whole motive is to promote low-cost drones… so we can bring benefits to the users, especially conservation groups.”

Things started out slow. Many professors felt that drones weren’t something members of the scientific community should be “spending their time on,” and the men found it hard to be taken seriously. A subsequent TED talk delivered by Koh changed all that. Catching the attention of both conservationists and drone enthusiasts, the ecologist now rents his equipment out to organizations for approximately $1,500 – $3,000 a pop.

“The most urgent need is to reconcile development – economic and social development – with environmental protection,” he explains. “We need to find a balance so Southeast Asia can continue to grow and prosper economically, perhaps to the standard of Western countries, while at the same time not repeating what the West did to their environment.”

Other groups have emulated his efforts. Conservationdrones.org, for example, seeks to “share knowledge of building and using low-cost unmanned aerial vehicles for conservation-related applications with conservation workers and researchers worldwide.” The company has deployed drones in Australia, the U.S., Switzerland and the U.K.

Biologists like James Junda also use drones to monitor Osprey nests. Several of his vehicles have crashed or been attacked by live specimens, but Junda’s hopes remain as high as ever. “Crashing is just part of the deal,” he jokes.

Despite positive results, not everyone is convinced. Cambridge geographer Chris Sandbrook says that while useful, drones can “alienate human stakeholders” and potentially make conservation efforts even harder to sustain by causing rifts between environmentalists and local people.

“The last twenty or so years of conservation practice have been characterized by efforts to move away from the so-called ‘fortress conservation’ or ‘fences and fines’ strategies based on exclusion and negative incentives towards more inclusive approaches that involve local people in conservation and share benefits with them,” he writes in a November 2015 article. “Drones might undermine this conservation paradigm by creating the impression, intended or otherwise, of a return to a militarized fortress conservation approach. It seems plausible, and even probable, that such perceptions of drones would make other conservation activities more difficult.”

The University of Maryland’s Thomas Snitch scoffs at these claims. Snitch has enjoyed many successful runs fighting poachers in Africa, and by his own words, he has drones to thank.

“I have been preaching that [unmanned aerial vehicles] are NOT a silver bullet, but are simply a tool to increase the effectiveness of a variety of anti-poaching efforts,” he states. “Before we send out a patrol at night, we fly a UAV out in front of them to clear their path. With [infrared] cameras on the drone, we remove the possibility of a hidden ambush. This saves the lives of rangers.”

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