Radio-tracking dronesThreatened speciesTracking Projects

Tracking Pangolins in Vietnam

In a world first, Wildlife Drones have been working with Save Vietnam’s Wildlife (SVW) to track the movements of critically endangered Sunda Pangolins in Vietnam from the air.

Often mistaken as reptiles, pangolins are actually one of the only known mammals to be covered in large, protective scales. While their scales serve to protect them from predators in the wild, they are also what makes them prized by poachers.  In fact, Pangolins are considered to be one of the world’s most trafficked mammals.

In the fight against the illegal wildlife trade, our partners at SVW have worked tirelessly to rescue and release Pangolins back into the wild. But as populations dwindle, tracking this elusive species is essential in helping to inform crucial conservation efforts. As a result, SVW has been reliant on using radio-tags to monitor the movements and survival of Pangolins post-release.

However, up until recently, Pangolins could only be radio-tracked manually on foot. Using handheld equipment that could only track one animal at a time, field researchers had to also navigate dense vegetation and impossibly steep slopes in order to locate them. This process can take multiple days to find just a single animal, or even worse, often the animals can’t be found at all.

But this all changed when SVW contacted us to see if we could help…

We headed over to Vietnam to do some trials using our drone radio-tracking technology to locate pangolins across vast, remote landscapes. This project was full of firsts for us. This was not only our first international project but the first time pangolins had been radio-tracked using drones.  It was also the first time that our system had been used for tracking small ground-dwelling animals in a dense tropical forest. Given both dense vegetation and moisture are known to have an impact on the ability to detect radio-signals we really didn’t know how effective it was going to be.

We spent the first few days of our trip at the SVW head office in Cuc Phuong National Park where we trained their field research team on all things Wildlife Drones. We even practiced tracking pangolin radio-tags by hiding spare tags in burrows and under logs within the forest to test whether it was going to work as we had hoped.  The great news was that it worked brilliantly and demonstrated that our technology could easily pick up the tag signals.  Happy with these results, we then travelled down to a remote area near the Laos border to have a go at tracking the real thing.

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In Pu Mat National Park, we were very privileged to witness the release of three radio-tagged pangolins back into the wild. These Pangolins had been seized from the illegal wildlife trade and had spent months in rehabilitation. But now, it was time for them to go home.

Seeing the whole setup from rescue and rehabilitation centers right through to the release of the animals back into the wild was an incredibly humbling experience.  It really made us appreciate just how much hard work goes into rescuing and protecting these highly trafficked animals. It was also a thrill for us to see how our technology can add immense value to their conservation efforts and empower local people to be able to more effectively monitor these individuals within incredibly inhospitable terrain.

Over the next few days, we were able to track the Pangolins’ movements as they dispersed from the release site. It was astonishing to see just how far these nocturnal animals would move in just a matter of days. While we were able to readily pick up the tag signals from the air, the landscape was so rugged and convoluted we had to develop new flight strategies to account for the steep, narrow valleys so we could hone in on where the animals were located. Once we got the hang of this, we felt like we had won the lottery when we were able to detect all three of the pangolins’ tag signals in a single flight.

We were also able to gain unique insights into how field researchers work within these landscapes. This included the use of small motorbikes to carry multiple people and lots of drone technology into the field site in true Vietnamese style.  There was no electricity at our base camp so we had to keep a generator running in order to charge the drone batteries for the following day.  At the end of each day it was wonderful sitting down together on a mat, sharing food and stories with our newfound friends, while feeling very grateful for the opportunity to be able to work in this stunning place with these amazing people.

Vietnam mountains dense with vegetation
Just a snapshot of the rugged and densely vegetated landscape we were working in. Photos simply do not do it any justice! (© Wildlife Drones)

The vast and remote nature of the landscape meant that we were able to fly the drone a very long way and cover a lot more ground than is possible in more developed areas.  This provided a great opportunity to really push our system to the limits and see how we could best make it work and where we could make improvements.

As a result of these incredibly valuable experiences, we are now in the process of incorporating longer range communications into our system so that our real-time data feeds are maintained even when flying up the longest of valleys.  From this experience, we are looking forward to seeing this extra capability empowering SVW to collect more data on each pangolin than ever before, while also rising to the challenge of monitoring the increasingly large numbers of pangolins that are now being released.

We owe a huge thank you to Thai Nguyen and field research team – Dung, Huyen and Tan – at Save Vietnam’s Wildlife for their generosity, wonderful hospitality and for letting us be a part of this incredibly special project. They are an amazing team of highly skilled and capable individuals whose dedication to wildlife conservation is reflected in the astounding positive impact they are having across Vietnam. If you would like to support their fantastic achievements and help get pangolins back out into the wild where they belong, please visit www.svw.vn to volunteer or donate. Every little bit helps.

We’ll continue to share updates on their progress in the coming months. Stay tuned!

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