The Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus) has recently been declared a critically endangered species by the IUCN, as a result of an estimated 86% population decline over just three generations (Ancrenaz et al. 2016). The main threats causing this decline are hunting, forest fires, and loss of habitat as a result of extreme levels of deforestation, mainly for oil palm plantations. To monitor the effect of these threats on populations and whether current conservation efforts are succeeding, it is vital to accurately assess populations of orangutans across the rainforest.
However, as orangutans are rare, solitary animals, they can be troublesome to find in the jungle, making monitoring populations by directly counting individual orangutans difficult! As a result, researchers count the ‘nests‘ each orangutan builds every night for sleeping and use these to estimate population densities of areas instead. Unfortunately, these nest surveys are undertaken on foot across difficult terrain, and therefore take a long time to complete and are restricted to areas that can be easily reached by walking. This means that huge areas of forest that contain orangutans go completely unsurveyed, and all too often forest areas are cleared before they can be assessed properly.
HOW WILL THIS PROJECT HELP?
Our project will test, develop, and evaluate two innovative and exciting methods that use drones as a replacement for the standard ground surveys, which means the surveys could potentially be undertaken much faster, across larger areas and at lower costs.
We will fly standard drones over the forest, to see if they can spot nests from the sky instead, and also use drones with thermal cameras, to see if we can spot individual orangutans in the canopy at night using their heat signature.
If these methods are successful, it will revolutionise how we monitor existing orangutan populations, allow us to survey new areas that are at risk of being deforested for tropical agriculture such as oil palm, and help establish new protected areas to prevent the orangutans there being lost forever.