The foundation established by famous naturalist and writer Gerald Durrell – whose books on his eccentric English family inspired the smash series The Durrells in Corfu – has turned to drones in its efforts to protect endangered animals around the world. The most recent example of that finds The Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust deploying the craft in Madagascar to prevent poaching of a rare species of lemur.
Drone flights to protect endangered animals
The move pairs the Durrell Trust with Massachusetts-based Plymouth Rock Technologies (PRT), which will fly missions over Madagascar’s largest lake, Lac Alaotra. That will involve PRT drones equipped with thermal infrared sensors scanning the dense trees and plants that make up the lake’s marsh for Alaotran gentle lemurs – the only primate to live exclusively over water. In doing so, the partners not only hope to keep accurate count of the threatened species, but also watch for any signs of human infiltration of the area suggestive of poachers.
The Durrell Trust’s partnership with PRT is an outgrowth of its earlier deployment of drones over Lac Alaotra to protect the endangered animals with researchers from Liverpool John Moores University. Those 2020 trials tested the efficiency of uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAV) using IR cameras in detecting the small mammals hidden in the thick marshes. They also kept watch for illegal efforts to burn the foliage in areas coveted by rice farmers.
“The results of the trial were promising,” a Durrell Trust report on the operation says. “In a single 20-minute flight, the drone was able to cover a greater area of the marsh than a canoe team could cover in two days, hugely increasing the efficiency of the surveys… The lemur’s dark fur also makes it particularly difficult to spot among the dense marsh, even for the trained eyes of local Durrell staff.”
With a far more precise idea of just how many of the lemurs remain in the area, the Durrell Trust decided continued use of drone flights would be an excellent way of protecting the endangered animals by allowing immediate reaction to any signs of population drop.
AI machine learning ups ability to detect poachers
To enhance that surveillance, the trust is bringing in UK-based company Conservation AI and its machine learning tech to scrutinize imagery PRT drones provide. The company describes its AI focus as “detecting and classifying animals, humans, and man-made objects indicative of poaching (e.g. cars, fires),” which provides rapid response that activity.
“Our models are trained to classify different species based on their geographical location,” Conservation AI says. “To date we have tagged over 150,000 objects across hundreds of different species.”
Founded by the conservationist and author in 1963, The Durrell Trust is finding other ways to use drones in its work to protect local wildlife. It has organized community events both during flights and for viewing video shot afterward with locals, some of whom are drawn to the effort by the cool tech involved. The Trust also thinks its drone work to protect the endangered Alaotran animal is just the start of UAV contribution to safeguarding endangered and less threatened wildlife on the island – and beyond.
“The team is hopeful that, in the longer term, this exciting technology can be adapted for use at other sites and with other species in Madagascar,” it says.
Somewhere, Gerald Durrell is smiling.
Photo: Chris Scarffe
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