Category Archives: conservation

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.”


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.


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



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.


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:

“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.


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.


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


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.


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.”


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.



Both Caribou and Monarch Butterflies in Canada Threatened

DCF 1.0

On December 4, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (Cosewic), a group of scientific experts, classified both Canada’s caribou and its monarch butterfly populations as endangered. “Caribou are, sadly, very sensitive to human disturbances, and we are disturbing caribou more and more,” said committee member Justina Ray. “These stressors seem to be interacting in complicated ways with rapid warming in the North.”

The committee’s report notes that: “Many of the great northern caribou herds have now fallen to all-time lows, and there is cause for concern that they will not rebound in the same way they have before.” The group is responsible for classifying wildlife species at risk of extinction, and recommending potential protective actions to the Canadian government.

In order to determine whether caribou herds were at risk, Cosewic examined two different caribou populations: the tundra herd, deemed to be “threatened,” as well as the smaller population of Torngat Mountain caribou which dwell in northeastern Canada, and which were found to be at an even greater risk of extinction. This group was thus labelled “endangered,” and was noted to be facing “imminent” extinction. The report also highlights both habitat encroachment, due to increased forestry and mining, and Arctic global warming as grave threats to Canadian caribous’ continued existence. This October the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) rang alarm bells over Canadian caribou herds’ rapid decline over the past thirty years, and the committee’s findings sadly lend support to this conclusion.

In the same report, Cosewic classified monarch butterflies as endangered, noting that the “remarkably tiny wintering grounds where monarchs congregate continue to be chipped away by habitat loss.”

These migratory creatures regularly fly 4000km south from Canada to Mexico to remain warm as winter approaches. The committee strongly recommends that the butterfly’s habitat in Canada, the United States, and Mexico, all be proctected to ensure the insects have a place to rest each step of their migration.”Otherwise, monarch migration may disappear, and Canada may lose this iconic species,” it concluded.

Lending support to this call, this June, 200 American, Mexican, and Canadian scientists, artists, and academics appealed to the leaders of the three nations to ban illegal logging and mining in the Mexican reserve where monarchs outlast the winter. They also called for a ban on pesticides used to diminish milkweed, which serves as the only food source for monarch caterpillars. For its part, Cosewic called out the use of an herbicide used on genetically modified corn and soybean, which has been detrimental to monarchs as well.

Actions such as those recommended by the committee will go a long way in helping preserve two Canada-dwelling species that rely heavily on diminishing habitats.


Source: “Canada caribou and monarch butterfly ‘endangered’”. 6 December 2016.

Wildlife Conservation Film Festival

Biodiversity & Wildlife Crime Conference
Christopher J. Gervais, F.R.G.S.
Founder & CEO
Twitter: @WCFF_org
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Painting Sun Bears to Save the Species


Photo: Tambako the Jaguar

In 2008, pet artist Suzi Chua learned about sun bears from biologist Wong Siew Te, founder of the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Center (BSBCC) in the Bornean city of Sandakan. Also called honey bears for their love of the sweet stuff, these endangered creatures live throughout South-East Asian tropical rainforests and on the Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Borneo. Chua, who is passionate about animals and volunteers at local animal shelters, was saddened to learn that the adorable bears, the smallest bear species, typically weighing in at 100 pounds or less, are often hunted for their body parts or are poached to be sold as exotic pets.

Thus, she created a project to help save the sun bears: through free art lessons that would teach how to paint sun bears. “I wanted to raise awareness and save the sun bears,” says Chua. To date, she has painted five sun bears at the BSBCC, including Koko, who died in 2015 of respiratory failure and whose portrait has been placed in the organization’s visitor center. Chua donated 30% of sales from three other portraits to BSBCC and just completed her fifth painting of Debbie, a sun bear sent to BSBCC in 2012 after being rescued from captivity as a pet.

Chua’s friend, Stacey Chiew, an art teacher, helps Chua by promoting the “Saving Sun Bears, One Painting At A Time” project to her students, and feels the project will help raise awareness of this sweet, shy, threatened species. “Art can create a powerful voice for sun bears. The main objective of this project is to let the younger generation know that forests are home to the sun bears, not cages,” she says. “The students should know that we have the power to change and destroy habitats, putting sun bears on the ever-increasing endangered species list. More and more young people are waking up to the fact that the choices they make can have an impact on wildlife.”

Adds Chua of the impact on students: “They can also gain a general understanding of how profound the loss would be if we don’t take action now to protect them. One day, we may never see the beautiful sun bears except in a picture book.” On their August 26 art session, they had over 40 students show up to paint Si Kecil (the Little One), a rescued sun bear cub who had been raised by sun bear biologist Gabriela Fredrikkson until he was killed by another sun bear in 2000. They worked from a photo taken by Wong two months before the cub’s death. Wong told Fredrikkson he hoped the photo of Si Kecil would grow famous around the world to shed light on the fate of the sun bears, and Si Kecil has since become the center’s icon. “These paintings will be displayed at BSBCC’s visitor center for public viewing. In future, we may sell or auction some of these paintings during special functions or fund-raising events,” says Wong.

BSBCC currently houses 40 rescued sun bears, the youngest of which is Wawa (a nine-month-old cub) and the oldest of which is Amaco (a 23-year-old sun bear). Sun bear populations throughout South-East Asia, Sabah included, are suffering greatly. Says Wong, “They face tremendous threats from habitat lost across their distribution range. For the sun bears that manage to survive, their survival may be further threatened by poaching for body parts and the pet trade. Recently, the Sabah Wildlife Department prosecuted two separate cases of sun bear poaching within two weeks. These cases raised serious concern for wildlife poaching in the state. In addition, Facebook is being used as a platform for the illegal wildlife trade.”

Wong praises Chua and Chiew for their unique project, which increases the next generation’s awareness of this beautiful endangered species.


Photo: Suzi Chua


Source: Chiew, Marjorie. “Care to paint a bright future for sun bears?” Star2.  16 September 2016.

Wildlife Conservation Film Festival
Biodiversity & Wildlife Crime Conference
Christopher J. Gervais, F.R.G.S.
Founder & CEO
Twitter: @WCFF_org
Instagram: @wcff_org

Threatened Texas Mussel May Spark Conflict Over Contested Waterways


Photo: Matthew Venn

The US Fish and Wildlife Service recently proposed the Texas hornshell mussel be classified as endangered, opening a new avenue for conflict over already highly-contested water systems throughout the state. The mussel is one of a dozen the USFWS is examining for endangered list inclusion, and if chosen, the mussel’s freshwater river habitats would be specially protected from heavy human usage.

If the species is listed, other mussels may be included as well. “This move provides insight into their thinking” on the remaining species, said Charles Randklev, a mussel expert at Texas A&M University’s Institute for Renewable Natural Resources. The hornshell “warrants some level of protection based on the data I’ve seen,” he said, “and some of the species are not faring as well as the hornshell.” These others include mussel species living in Central Texas’  Colorado, Guadalupe and Brazos river basins in Central Texas, such as the false spike and the Texas pimpleback.

Human activity is to blame for disruption of the mussels’ populations, says the USFWS, through creation of dams and increasingly poor water quality that hurt the Texas hornshell and other Southwest freshwater mussels. “The waterways they call home are being altered and impacted by declining water quality and quantity,” Benjamin Tuggle, the USFWS’s Southwest regional director, reported. “Declining freshwater mussel populations are signs of an unhealthy aquatic system, which has negative implications for the fish, wildlife and communities that depend upon those rivers and streams.”

However, protections bestowed in the best interests of the mussels will have vast impacts on the already much-disputed distribution of water to industries, farmers, and Texas’ growing cities by state river authorities. “With increased human demand, the question is how that affects stream flows,” Randklev said.

Despite Tuggle’s statement that he hopes to work closely with landowners “to benefit both the species and communities that rely upon those flowing waters”, a legal fight between federal and state officials seems likely if the mussel is listed. The state comptroller’s office has commissioned research into how increased habitat protections would harm Texas’ economy. “We’re still examining the proposal, and we also need to look at the species status assessment report,” comptroller spokesman Chris Bryan said.

Once plentiful (and a staple of indigenous peoples), the Texas hornshell mussel is a filter feeder that can grow up to 4 inches long and live around 20 years. This species has vastly declined within the past few decades, according to the Federal Register. The mussels are technically edible but are not considered safe to eat where water is polluted. The mollusk habitates within the Rio Grande downstream from Big Bend National Park and Laredo, as well as in the Pecos and the Devils rivers in Val Verde County.

The Nature Conservancy and Texas Parks and Wildlife Department have already begun efforts to maintain this and other threatened river species, taking measures to reduce sediment and contaminants on protected land near the Devils River watershed. In addition, Lower Colorado River Authority and the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority officials are monitoring the addition of any Texas waterway species to the endangered list. “At this point it’s premature to say whether or how future listings may impact the lower Colorado River basin,” LCRA spokeswoman Clara Tuma said. Only time will tell how this potential conflict will play out if the mussel is listed.

The Fish and Wildlife Service will be taking comments from the public regarding the proposed endangered species listing of the Texas hornshell mussel until Oct. 11 before they come to a decision.


Photo: David O.

Source: Price, Asher. “Texas mussel proposed as endangered, with implications for waterways.” My Statesman. 10 August 2016.

Wildlife Conservation Film Festival
Biodiversity & Wildlife Crime Conference
Christopher J. Gervais, F.R.G.S.
Founder & CEO
Twitter: @WCFF_org
Instagram: @wcff_org
LinkedIn: Wildlife Conservation Film Festival