Drone regulationsEnvironmental Drones

Drones Can be an Ethical Way to Study Wildlife but the Law Needs to Catch Up

Bolivian Squirrel Monkey

As an ecologist who has studied endangered species for many years, I absolutely relate to Mark Dunsmuir’s feeling of privilege and responsibility when it comes to observing and studying wildlife.  It certainly is wonderful experience to observe, document and capture moments of natural wildlife behaviour. As a scientist, whenever I do formal wildlife research, I am required to go through extensive ethics approvals processes to evaluate the impact of my actions and identify every opportunity to minimise or avoid disturbance to both target and non-target animals. So it’s great to hear photographers also actively expressing the same interest in capturing imagery in an ethical manner.

There is very little regulation governing the protection of wildlife from such photographic disturbances, despite the fact that such actions are just as likely (if not more likely due to inexperience of the pilot in relation to animal behaviour) to negatively impact on wildlife.  When I see drones being used to harass or disturb wildlife, I feel sickened as I watch the distressed behaviour and the fall out it can have for the individuals involved.  This includes the instances raised by Dunsmuir in his article, and others such as when a mother bear and her cub were so harassed and stressed by the presence of a drone that there was serious risk to the life of the cub.

I think this really needs to change as drone technology becomes increasingly accessible to inexperienced operators who either inadvertently or intentionally disrupt wildlife.  For example, I recently saw a collection of video footage showing threatened species that miraculously managed to survive the recent devastating bushfires in Australia.  This sounds great, but when you see a threatened species, such as the Greater Glider which is typically an incredibly agile and nimble nocturnal animal bounding among the branches, that is “frozen” to a spot and unable to move because it is completely blinded by an incredibly powerful drone-mounted spotlight for an extended period of time, I fear the capturing of the footage does more harm than good and exposes the animal to increased risk of stress, injury and/or predation when it is was already in a precarious situation.

One of the key challenges with developing regulations that protect wildlife, yet enable responsible drone operations and valuable surveys and imagery, is understanding the vast array of different sensitivities and responses of different animals.  However, there is a growing body of evidence clearly showing that although drone surveys can definitely have an impact on wildlife, when used responsibly they can also offer immense value and actually decrease impacts on wildlife compared to traditional survey techniques used for wildlife conservation programs.

For example, research by Sorrell et al. (2019) on fur seals clearly demonstrates some of the benefits of using drones for wildlife monitoring and how they exceed those of traditional techniques.  A project by Rischette et al. (2020) also shows how picking the right flight strategy and wind conditions can minimise impacts of using of small unmanned aerial systems for sharp-tailed grouse lek surveys.

This was further reinforced at the NAOC 2020 conference last week which was attended by over 3000 delegates included extensive discussions on the use of drones in bird research around the world and scientific evaluations of the pros and cons of using such techniques.

I hope that as this knowledge base grows, drone regulation bodies such as CASA will begin incorporating such scientific knowledge into drone pilot training programs, running impactful education campaigns to the broader public, and introducing regulations and enforcement that uphold ethical and respectful observations of wildlife along similar lines to those developed for marine mammals.

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