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Technology keeps track of wildlife
From the Financial Times of Wed, 24 Dec 2014 00:02:53 GMT
French researchers are tracking Adélie penguins to help them survive the effects of global warming

French researchers are tracking Adélie penguins to help them survive the effects of global warming

Small camera-equipped “drones” or multi-rotor helicopters are tipped to be one of the best-selling gadgets that will be given as gifts this Christmas. But in the most remote corners of the earth adaptations of these unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are providing vital data to those who protect endangered species.

Such UAVs are, for example, being operated by ShadowView Foundation, a not-for-profit drone operator based in the Netherlands, and whose aircraft are already in widespread use in Africa. By adapting commercially available technology, the foundation has developed Shadow Rotor, a modified “quadcopter” (with four rotors) that has an hour’s flight time — around three times as long as a consumer model.

Shadow Rotor can fly above a forest canopy and pick up signals from tags fitted to animals that might be roaming too far from a rangers’ base for land-based monitoring.

Using a UAV, which can cover large land masses quickly to monitor forest creatures, allows scientists to fit smaller, less intrusive tags to animals than has previously been possible and overcomes problems that dense forests may cause as they can block global positioning system tracking.

According to Steve Roest, ShadowView’s co-founder, the technology is being considered for monitoring orang-utans. “It allows us to help the animals, without stressing them,” he says.

ShadowView’s larger, fixed-wing, drone aircraft have been used on anti-poaching patrols in the Kruger National Park. Christened the Eco Ranger, this is closer to a military-style UAV than a hobbyist’s machine. It needs a runway, or at least a stretch of rough track, to take off from and land on. But, Mr Roest says, it is consumer technology that is making smaller and cheaper UAVs possible, enabling them to be used for a wider range of conservation projects.

Meanwhile, further south, the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) funds research into penguin populations being conducted by the British Antarctic Survey in the South Orkneys and French researchers in the Antarctic. The French researchers are tracking Adélie penguins, like Monty, the one seen in the popular John Lewis Christmas advertisements in the UK.

Penguins are equipped with data loggers and GPS tags that track their movements in and out of the water. Some are also fitted with devices that connect to the specialist Argos satellite, a worldwide location and data collection system dedicated to studying and protecting the environment, as the poles are out of reach of many commercial communications networks.

Information gathered will be used to help protect the Adélie penguin, which is a near-threatened species, and is at a greater risk from rising global temperatures than some other species of penguin.

The BAS team, meanwhile, will soon start to track emperor penguins on the Jason Peninsula. The Southern Ocean, where the BAS is working, is described as “one of the most pristine large seas left in the world” by WWF polar programme manager Rod Downie. “Our objective for the Southern Ocean is to design a network of marine protected areas,” says Mr Downie.

Information gathered here will help to develop strategies to protect emperor penguins as the polar ice they live on melts.

The British conservation charity RSPB is also using a growing number of cheap tracking devices, miniature cameras and drones for its conservation work with birds and habitats.

The RSPB is using satellites to track the red-headed vulture, which declined in numbers by 90 per cent between 1992-2007.

The species is thought to be vulnerable to a drug used to treat livestock in south Asia. However, the actual cause of the deaths of these birds is what the RSPB is trying to determine. When one of the tracked vultures dies its body is recovered using the information provided by the devices and a postmortem conducted to determine the cause of death.

“The drug, diclofenac, is incredibly toxic to at least some species of birds of prey,” says Guy Anderson, principal research manager at the RSPB. The group attributes the cause of what Dr Anderson this “catastrophic decline” in the species to the use of this drug.

The RSPB is also fitting trackers to much smaller birds, such as the red-necked phalarope. This bird, which winters in Scotland’s Northern Isles, was thought to migrate to the Indian Ocean. But by using a tracker called a geo-locational light sensor, which weighs just 0.7 grammes, the RSPB found that British colonies migrate as far south as the Galápagos.

Dr Anderson says the development of consumer technologies has benefited environmental groups that need to collect animal data by creating smaller, lighter trackers and longer-lasting batteries. Their lower costs also allow wildlife groups to fit more sensors to more animals, such as a project tracking breeding seabirds in Britain.

“These are trackers we can buy off the shelf and tweak, perhaps adding a different battery,” he says. “We’re able to build up a picture of the behaviour of 1,500 birds this way.”

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