Counting birds on Dyer Island and other ways drones are used to help wildlife

2018-06-13 10:40 - Gabi Zietsman
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drone controlled by man comes in for a landing on

While some may see drones as a nuisance that's been banned in most conservation areas, this technology can still be used for the good of Mother Nature.

CapeNature has started using drones to make their monthly bird count on Dyer Island easier, signalling how the technology could be used to help conserve wildlife.

SEE: Don't zone out with your drone out: SA's no-drone zones

Bird counting is necessary to help map fluctuations in populations that in turn help track endangered species. Any decline or increase can have serious effects on wider ecosystems and Dyer Island is one of South Africa's most important bird areas.

CapeNature first started investigating using drones for the arduous counting process a few years ago, but are now finally able to put the technology into action after receiving a donation from the Leiden Conservation Foundation.

The island is home to 15 species of seabird like the African penguin and one species of shorebird, plus marine animals, like seals, sharks and dolphins, also make their home in its surrounding waters. The island isn't open to the public, but you can take a cruise around the island with Dyer Island Cruises from Gansbaai in Western Cape.

Dyer Island will be a trial-run using drones and if the results are good then the conservation authority will start using them in other areas managed by them where bird counts are necessary.

ALSO SEE: Bird-watching enthusiasts invited to help shape SANParks’ avitourism

Deon Geldenhuys, the conservation manager for the island, is looking forward to the results of this groundbreaking project.

"It is quicker and less intrusive than walking around the islands counting the birds. Additionally, it also provides a means to view areas on the island that are either difficult to access, or if accessed, have the potential to cause disturbance to the birds. 

"This initiative is in its infancy and there’s still a lot to learn but I think that it will be a ground-breaking project for CapeNature’s threatened bird surveys," says Geldenhuys.

SEE: Study: Drones more damaging than bird strikes to planes

man lands drone on island in south african ocean

Conservation manager Deon Geldenhuys lands a drone on Dyer Island. (Photo: CapeNature)

On the mainland, the bird population in Knysna is seeing better days since the devastating fires that ravaged the Garden Route in 2017, as locals have made huge strides in helping the bird colonies recover.

Rozanne Fleet told Beautiful News that she knew she had to help when she realised that she couldn't hear the chirping of birds anymore in her garden and that birds were fighting each other to get to feeders.

The fires left thousands of birds without food and shelter, so Fleet decided to start collecting supplies to help the feathered friends. People started donating hundreds of bird feeders and nesting boxes and Fleet started a community of Feeder Guardians that help to maintain these feeders.

Their efforts were rewarded when by mid-spring birds began to return to Knysna and their gardens.

SEE: Knysna Forest: 4x4 adventuring along secret, century-old routes

Tree-planting drones

Drones can be used for more than just counting wildlife, and perhaps something that the Garden Route can also use. A British startup BioCarbon Engineering designed drones that can help fight deforestation by surveying planting areas and shooting seedpods into the ground so that new trees may grow, or instead scatter seeds around that can take root without being planted.

This is great for large landscapes marked by deforestation for faster seed distribution.

WATCH: This drone in the Drakensberg will make you pack your hiking bag, stat!

Fighting poaching

In Africa methods used to fight rhino and other animal poaching are numerous, but some have called for the use of drones to monitor parks as a cheaper option to costlier helicopters. It's also cited that drones can get to places that are harder on foot or by vehicle, but there are still some limitations with the current technology, like durability for rugged terrain and long battery life, as well as costs. Trial runs have taken place though in parks like Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, Kruger and Hluhluwe-iMfolozi in South Africa, but the technology is still being tested.

London-based organisation Save the Rhino believes however that drone tech is still not the catch-all to save our wildlife, and that on-the-ground methods may still be the best way for now.

SEE: SANParks reminder: Flying drones at parks will lead to arrest