For the last few years, drones have taken to the front lines of conservation efforts around the world. They're being used to monitor animal species and keep an eye out for poachers, venturing into areas that are either dangerous for humans or just plain hard to get to.
The small aerial vehicles are now being used to aid in the protection of another species -- the chimpanzee. In Africa, the primates make nests high in thick tree canopies. These nests are difficult for researchers to locate, often taking hours on the ground to find just one nest.
“The most commonly used method to survey great ape populations is counting nests during ground surveys as they build a new nest each night but these ground surveys do not occur frequently enough with due time and costs involved, said Liverpool John Moores University professor Serge Wich, who was a co-author of the study.
“So far, aerial drone surveys have successfully detected nests of orang-utans, but before this study it was unknown if this technology would work for African apes, which often construct their nest lower below the canopy. This study shows that drones are also a promising tool to assist African ape conservation.”
The drones, fitted with a standard camera, can quickly detect nests. They can take a large number of photos in just a 20 minute flight time. Researchers can then make maps of the distribution of these nests and monitor changes over time, identifying areas where population numbers are low.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has labeled chimpanzees as endangered because of major population declines in the past 30 years. These drone surveys will not only allow scientists to count and monitor chimpanzees, but to identify their preferred habitat down to their favorite tree species. Knowing which are important in the chimpanzee diet will allow greater protection efforts for those species to support the chimpanzees.