Do Drones Create Undue Stress in the Animals They Track?

Drone Vs. Wild

Unmanned aerial vehicles (or UAVS, better known as drones) have complex interactions with the animals they monitor. Though scientists use drones to protect animals from poachers and obtain data on threatened species, evidence suggests these flying devices take an unseen toll on the creatures they track. YouTube even boasts a multitude of videos that show chimps, eagles, lions, and rams viciously attacking UAVs. So what’s going on when drone meets beast?

In the first study of its kind, scientists measured Minnesota black bears’ physiological responses to UAVs, which flew overhead 17 times. Data from sensors previously implanted in the bears revealed that in nearly all trials the animals’ heart rates significantly increased, though few behavioral reactions were noted. In the most extreme case, sensors recorded a 400% spike in one bear’s heart rate, from 39 to 162 beats per minute. University of Minnesota study leader Mark Ditmer found the results somewhat surprising, as bears in this region commonly hear loud noises from farm equipment and nearby traffic. “We thought they’d seen everything,” he said. Still, “Drones have different sounds and different capabilities. They can fly under the forest canopy, they can get very close, and even follow an individual.”

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Photo: Andy Cush

David Wilkie, the Wildlife Conservation Society’s director of Conservation Support, hesitated to read too much into the findings without further research on drone-wildlife interactions, noting: “Heart rate is really an indication of arousal, a natural reaction. All animals get aroused when there’s an unfamiliar sound. It’s about vigilance, not necessarily stress.” He called for a study to measure the amount of stress hormone cortisol found in animals’ feces after UAV flight trials. Ditmer conceded that, though wild species may habituate to UAVs just as they have to highways and other manmade noises, the potentially chronic stress from constant close-up drones could have unknown consequences, even impacting bears’ success in reproducing and finding food, as well as weakening their immune systems. “If you have an endangered species or animals sensitive to human interference, we could push them beyond a threshold,” he said.

More Good Than Harm?

The key may be to test individual species’ reactions to UAVs before implementing long-term drone surveillance on them, ensuring the benefits (e.g. protecting them from poachers and obtaining insightful data) to that group always outweigh any stress inflicted. In science journal Current Biology, Australian researchers Jarrod Hodgson and Lian Pin Koh agree that “It is likely that animal responses vary depending on a variety of factors, including the species, environmental and historical context, and the type of UAV and its method of operation.” The duo outline some best practice guidelines they hope will both public and private sectors will implement to minimize stressful drone-animal interactions. For instance, Hodgson and Koh recommend that researchers choose drone models that are unobtrusive and even camouflaged, that they consider obtaining data via satellite images or manned aircraft before deploying drones, and that any negative animal responses should be shared in published studies. With these suggestions, they seek  to define drones as “a powerful, low-impact ecological survey tool” that can harvest key data on threatened populations within acting in ways that could threaten them further.

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Photo: Mike Tuziw, Alamy

Clearly-defined legislation can serve to insulate wild animals from drone hobbyists, who may have no qualms about flying drones right up to wildlife for the sake of a good photo. Currently, Canadian law bans all drones within 150 meters of wild animals, while the US National Park Service prohibits drones from flying over protected land so that animal inhabitants will remain undisturbed. Wilkie noted that, after lawmakers and researchers lay out what constitutes appropriate drone behavior around wild animals, UAVS will  have “enormous potential that we’ve barely begun to tap,” and Hodgson and Koh too are optimistic. “In our experience, the vast majority of UAV users, both biologists and hobbyists, do not want to disturb wildlife and will often seek advice from experts,” Hodgson said. “By promoting an awareness of the potential for UAVs to impact wildlife, we hope that users will be more conscious of the potential impacts and utilize the code to ensure their UAV operations are responsible.” If their consequences on animal physiology are properly researched and shared amongst the scientific community, who knows the vitally important data that drones could secure on threatened wildlife species, even possibly helping them escape extinction?

-Shannon Cuthbert

Sources:

https://phys.org/news/2016-05-minimize-drone-impact-wildlife.html

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2015/08/150825-drones-animals-wildlife-bears-science-technology/

http://500below.com/what-you-need-to-know-about-drones-and-wild-animals/

WCFF Celebrates United Nations’ World Wildlife Day

WCFF was honored to participate for the second year in a row, in World Wildlife Day at the United Nations. On Friday, March 3, the WCFF screened several films for children as this year’s theme was “Listen to Young Voices.”

The UN General Assembly (UNGA) and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), celebrates and raise awareness of the world’s wild fauna and flora on March 3 every year, World Wildlife Day.

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Support the WCFF and help us continue our mission to Inform, Engage and Inspire wildlife conservation and the protection of global biodiversity. Join us for our seven year anniverssary this October in New York. For for more information contact: info@wcff.org

“Escaping Extinction: Whale Sharks of the Maldives”

“Escaping Extinction: Whale Sharks of the Maldives” produced by Ashley Kelly, will premiere at the 2017 WCFF this October in New York, NY.

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For over 60 million years, the mysterious Whale Shark has traversed the open sea, but very little is known about the world’s largest fish, this docile shark. Maldivian communities are proud to celebrate the Whale /Sharks and their marine biodiversity.

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These days, Whale Sharks in the Maldives are safe from their number one predator, man…. but this has not always been the case.

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Join us for the 7th year anniversary of the WCFF. October 19-29 in New York. Ten days of film screenings, panel discussions, receptions, field trips, conference and weekend retreat with film producers and scientists. WCFF is the only film festival on the planet whose mission is to inform, engage and inspire wildlife conservation and the protection of global biodiversity.

“Tale of a Lake”: An Ecosystem That’s More Than Meets the Eye

“Tale of a Lake”, produced by Marko Rohr, will have its World Premiere at the 2017 WCFF in New York, NY this October.

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Rohr spoke of interest in the film: “This big interest shows how dear we Finns hold our nature and our lakes, and how important it is for us to know our people’s old beliefs and myths – our roots.”

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Join us for the 7th year anniversary of the WCFF. October 19-29 in New York. Ten days of film screenings, panel discussions, receptions, field trips, conference and weekend retreat with film producers and scientists. WCFF is the only film festival on the planet whose mission is to inform, engage and inspire wildlife conservation and the protection of global biodiversity.

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“Oceanic Aliens”: Otherworldly Creatures of the Deep

“Oceanic Aliens”, produced by Mike Johnson, will be a World Premiere at the 2017 WCFF in New York, NY this October.

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More is known about outer space than our very own oceans. This short documentary illustrates just one example of little known class of marine species and their amazing attributes.

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“Oceanic Aliens” is a short documentary compiled from two Pelagic Black Water dives in Kona, Hawaii. Johnson was able to research and identify many of the creatures that appeared in such startling beauty in the film.

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Join us for the 7th year anniversary of the WCFF. October 19-29 in New York. Ten days of film screenings, panel discussions, receptions, field trips, conference and weekend retreat with film producers and scientists. WCFF is the only film festival on the planet whose mission is to inform, engage and inspire wildlife conservation and the protection of global biodiversity.

Technologies That May Save Rhinos from Poachers

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The illegal wildlife trade, which brings in an estimated $19 billion annually worldwide, has claimed the lives of almost 6000 African rhinos since 2008, with 1175 of those killed just within South Africa, figures which have accelerated each year as demand for the horns increases steadily. Only about 5000 black rhinos, and just three northern white rhinos, which have been unable to reproduce, remain worldwide.

For poachers, killing rhinos makes good financial sense: a rhino horn in Asia was worth $60-100K per kilogram in 2013. Nevertheless, scientists and conservationists have been fighting back, using technology in creative ways to help save these beautiful creatures from having their horns hacked off and being left for dead.

A mechanical engineer thought up the idea to create robotic rhino babies, which would stay close to real rhino herds and alert authorities when poachers approached. These robo-rhinos, called Rakamera, would replicate real rhino behavior so the herds learn to accept them. The robots would be powered by hydrogen fuel cells, with internal hydraulic and servomotors to make movement possible; plus, they would be fitted with infrared sensors and cameras to track humans coming close to the herd.

Other techniques that have been implemented to stop poachers include implanting mini cameras or micro-chips into the horns, allowing officials to more easily trace and pursue poaching operations. Recently, San Francisco-based biotech startup Pembient came up with a unique and intriguing idea: they were able to create synthetic rhino horns, using a combination of rhino DNA and keratin, the protein the horns, as well as our hair and nails, are made of. These ingredients form a dry powder that is fed into 3D printers and emerges as a horn indistinguishable from the real thing. The company has even partnered with a Chinese brewery to create a beer with this synthetic powder inside, replacing other beers with real horn purported to cure hangovers. However, Pembient has faced criticism from conservation NGOs, who have long been working to reduce demand for the horns in the first place, educating the public about the dire impacts of horn poaching and the lack of evidence for supposed medicinal benefits of consuming the horn. These groups worry that flooding the market with cheap synthetic horns may actually have the unintended effect of increasing the general public’s desire for rhino horns, spurring on more poachers than before.

Until the demand for rhino horns, which are believed to have healing properties, and are now frequently used as a status symbol, decreases, we must continue to track and fight poachers through technologies which will hopefully only expand and improve in years to come.

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Sources: Gallego, Jelor. “The Newest Anti-Poaching Technique? Robotic Rhinos.” Futurism. 5 December 2016.

Ankrom, Darren. “Synthetic Rhino Horn Made with a 3D Printer is the Latest Tool to Fight Poaching.” Vice. 24 June 2015.

Wildlife Conservation Film Festival

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All Legal Ivory Trading from Largest Market to End This Year

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Elephant populations everywhere are in grave danger, with species ranging in classification from vulnerable to critically endangered. The biggest causes of their fragility are habitat encroachment and poaching, which claimed 20,000 elephants in 2015, more than were born that year. Interestingly, these two causes may intertwined: in the minds of many locals whose livelihood depends on cultivating the land, habitat encroachment seems to necessitate killing or removing the elephants who live there, which in turn provides the perfect opportunity for poachers to swoop in and take the ivory that is in such high demand around the world. The UN Environment Programme found that over 63% of elephant rangelands will be occupied by humans by 2050.

Though an international ban on the once-legal ivory trade passed successfully throughout the ‘80s, political corruption and an illegal crime ring filled the void: in 2011, poaching caused 75% of elephant deaths worldwide. The ban had a fatal loophole, allowing ivory obtained prior to the ban to be sold, allowing poachers to claim the ivory was much older than it actually was.

Recently, China took great strides in cutting back on this dangerous and swiftly-accelerating industry, creating a plan to ban all trade by the end of 2017. “It’s a game changer and could be the pivotal turning point that brings elephants back from the brink of extinction,” said Elly Pepper at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Conservationists are hopeful that other countries will take note and implement their own measures to counteract this deadly trade, allowing elephant populations to recover before they face critically low numbers.

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Source: Caughill, Patrick. “The Biggest Ivory Market in the World will End All Legal Trading in 2017.” Futurism. 4 January 2017.

Wildlife Conservation Film Festival

Biodiversity & Wildlife Crime Conference
Christopher J. Gervais, F.R.G.S.
Founder & CEO
Christopher@WCFF.org
www.WCFF.org

Facebook.com/WCFForg
Twitter: @WCFF_org
Twitter: @CJGERVAIS
Instagram: @wcff_org
Vimeo.com/wcff
dailymotion.com/WCFF1
LinkedIn: Wildlife Conservation Film Festival

From the Founder: Wildlife Conservation Film Festival