Spotting Orangutans from Home
Updated: Mar 5, 2018
The plight of the orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus) has reached a critical point over the last few years. In fact in 2016 the IUCN declared this flagship species 'Critically Endangered' with a currently decreasing population. It is clear that drastic conservation measures are needed if we are serious about saving this beloved species from extinction, and perhaps a new perspective. Sol Milne, Dr. Julien Martin and Prof. David Burslem from the University of Aberdeen, are leading a research effort teamed up with conservation frameworks in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo, taking biological surveying to the next level. Combining the latest exciting drone technology with citizen science, they intend to maximise data collection efficiency in order to quickly provide an accurate population map for orangutans across the study area. The applications of this work are boundless, both within, and outside orangutan conservation.
How does this work?
Drone technology has well... soared... over the last few years, with just about anyone being able to get their hands on their own mini helicopter. For everyday recreational use the benefits and drawbacks are constantly in the balance, however when drones are applied in the context of research, amazing things can happen. Lately drones have been used to reseed large swathes of forest, create 3D land maps and capture aerial video that changed the way we look at wildlife behaviour. It's all about accessibility and speed. Drones can do things quickly, intelligently and with precision - ideal for conservation.
Photo credit - Sol Milne, University of Aberdeen
Screen capture from Hoo Pui Kiat
"On foot, we can only cover a small area of forest, as it takes time to walk through thick, viney forest, while maintaining a straight line, looking up into the trees for nests. When we fly the drone we can cover 2 km square in one morning, so we get a much larger amount information in a much shorter time - and for less money!"
In this scenario Sol uses his drone to fly over rainforest in the UNDP Project Area in the Sabah Region, in search of orangtuan nests and their favourite food, the strangler fig. However, no searching is done at this time; the drone merely records a transect of jungle below which can be looked at later in the lab. This improves sampling in the following ways:
Saves time by not actively searching
Remains scientifically rigorous with respect to spatial data
Saves time avoiding ground level obstacles and terrain
Doesn't scare the animals, which could also skew data
Provides additional potential data; canopy cover, terrain, features
Images can be thoroughly examined at any point later in time
Of course there can be hindrances; bad weather and the odd failing of technology can set sampling back a few days, but it's a small price to pay for the huge benefits of this kind of study.
Photo credit - Jason Hodgson, Imperial College London
"We always encounter animals while we're doing the line transects. Several times we've come across cobras, poisonous spiders, angry pig- tailed macaques. However these are all part of the experience of being in the forest and something that needs to be expected when we enter this environment."
The images then are loaded onto a citizen science website known as Zooniverse. Citizen science is the wonderful concept in which research is aided to completion by the general (interested) public, or 'citizens'. Data are presented in an interesting and interactive format whereby people at home can take part, learn about the science, and potentially have fun! This means that large studies with time consuming (yet relatively menial) tasks can be fulfilled quicker, simultaneously providing science communication and increasing awareness of their research.
Screen capture from Orangutan Nest Watch
For Orangutan Nest Watch, citizens are presented with one image at a time, looking down on the canopy. They are directed to study the image and click on any potential orangutan nests or strangler figs, also adding a level of certainty to their observation. When enough data has been collected in this way, Sol will have a large scale representation of where orangutans make their nests, and where their food is, which can be used as an accurate proxy for population density.
"The amazing thing about input from citizen scientists is that they find things that others miss. Everyone has a multitude of biases we are unaware of, and crowdsourcing this fine-scale image analysis work to a number of keen volunteers allows us to cut through this process and examine each image with fresh eyes."
What can be done with this information?
All the location data that Sol and the team gather can be used to look for hotspots of orangutan activity. On a large scale this will give a fairly precise idea of the range of individuals, and also the preferred environment. Once defined, the habitat composition of these areas can be analysed to give a very accurate picture of the best environment for orangutans. First and foremost, it is important to preserve areas of high orangutan density and this data will support any proposal for establishing protected areas across Sabah. This information will be of use to conservation initiatives which aim to provide managed sanctuary for orangutans which imitates their wild environment, and also locate potential viable areas for reintroduction.
Photo credit - Sol Milne, University of Aberdeen
On a more methodological level, the success of this project will provide a working template for studies with similar goals across the world. Research which requires scanning vast or difficult to reach areas will now be easily studied by drone, without the huge expense of hiring manned aircraft. This makes finding and helping rare or endangered animals much easier, and could greatly improve the speed of conservation projects.
"Even when surveying in areas where we thought we were alone, we continue to come across signs of hunting, finding shotgun shells almost everyday. Unless roads into protected areas are monitored, this will continue."
How can you help?
This is the easy bit! Now that you know how it works, all you have to do is visit the website to begin scanning for orangutan nests, and who knows, you might even see the real deal! You don't have to have an account, but if you do it's easier to discuss images or find out more about the project. So next time you're waiting for that food delivery, or twiddling your thumbs after work, log on and give it a go knowing that your input will directly be helping the conservation of the orangutan.
"This project has already shown us a large number of nests that had previously not seen, despite our experience monitoring these images for signs of orangutan presence."