Protecting Nepal’s Wildlife with Conservation Drones

Conservationists in Nepal are investigating the viability of using unmanned aircraft to monitor activity in hard-to reach areas of the country’s national parks. On June 12 a test was conducted in Chitwan National Park by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) with Nepali officials present including the Forests and Soil Conservation Minister, Director General of the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation, Nepal Army representatives, and Chitwan National Park’s Chief Conservation Officer.

Equipped with cameras and GPS, two Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), also known as ‘drones’, were sent out to capture images of the park’s remote regions. The drones measure two meters wide, and flying at a maximum elevation of 200 meters, they can cover a distance of 25 kilometers in 45 minutes. Supported by the WWF’s Asian Rhino and Elephant Action Strategy (AREAS), the high-tech drones will be used to monitor the activities and numbers of tigers and rhinos for research purposes, while at the same time monitoring for poachers and illegal activities in Nepal’s protected areas.

Motivated by their interest in using advancing technology in biodiversity conservation, the Conservation Drone was developed by University of Zurich biologist Serge Wich, along with Swiss Federal Institute of Technology ecologist Lian Pin Koh. In addition to the project being implemented in Nepal, Conservation Drones have been used for wildlife surveys and monitoring in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Tanzania. The developers of the Conservation Drone note that while highly sophisticated drones have been used by military, agriculture and the film industry for some time now, the cost of these systems generally puts them beyond the reach of most conservation groups. Their aim is to build low-cost drones to be adapted for a variety of environmental applications.

The greater one-horned rhinoceros, or Indian rhinoceros, in Nepal had declined in numbers until by the end of the 1960s there were only one hundred left in the country. Through the dedicated conservation effort, their numbers started rising, with the count in the year 2000 confirming a population of more than 600. Sadly, due to poaching, habitat destruction and military conflict, rhino numbers have dwindled to around 400. It is anticipated that drones will assist conservationists and government officials to monitor these giant animals, along with Nepal’s other wildlife, for the benefit of future generations.