Using drones to protect Great Apes in Africa

17/11/2021
15 - Life on Land

Great Apes are our closest cousins in the animal kingdom. They are now threatened with extinction, because of the fragmentation or loss of their habitat, poaching and trade and even disease transmission. Their extinction would trigger the disappearance of other species that depend on them. These species play a fundamental role in the ecological balance of tropical forests and ecosystems, and therefore in adaptation to climate change. We must protect them - by protecting our closest cousins and their habitats, it is "one health" that we are defending.

UNESCO is joining forces with the French National Museum of Natural History to support Great Ape conservation efforts in Africa, by improving observation and data collection on Great Apes but also on the health of ecosystems they depend on. The project, which will be implemented in 23 UNESCO designated sites, proposes to use drones to perform remote monitoring and surveillance of habitats and species. It is much easier to survey dangerous or isolated areas with drones, and this reduces human impacts and disturbance of protected areas, thus eliminating any risk of transmitting zoonotic diseases.

Initially, UNESCO developed a research protocol with Dr Sabrina Krief, expert primatologist of the Museum, and four UNESCO biosphere reserves:

  • Dja Biosphere Reserve, Cameroon,
  • Luki Biosphere Reserve, Democratic Republic of Congo,
  • Niokolo Koba Biosphere Reserve, Senegal, and
  • Badiar Biosphere Reserve, Guinea.

The protocol proposes to use drones to collect various data, such as the feeding areas of the Great Apes, their nests or other points of interest for these species, while also collecting information on the interfaces between their habitats and areas of human activities, areas sensitive to natural hazards or even illegal activities (timber extraction, illegal land use, poaching, etc.).

A pilot study was successfully carried out in July-August 2021 by the Sebitoli Chimpanzee Project implemented by Dr Krief in Kibale National Park, Uganda.

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A drone will be handed over to Uganda during a celebration of the 50th anniversary of UNESCO's Man and the Biosphere (MAB) Programme this week, symbolically marking the next stage of the project. The managers of 16 biosphere reserves, 2 properties on the World Heritage list and 5 mixed sites will be trained in the use of drones and the implementation of the protocol in 2022. The sites will each receive drones to implement the project through UNESCO field offices in the coming months, and the first training will be held in January 2022, in Kibale National Park, Uganda, sanitary conditions permitting.

They will all participate in updating the existing data on Great Apes inside and outside protected areas in Africa, in order to guide urgent action for their preservation, and that of tropical forests our common future depends on.

More information:

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Top image: baby gorilla on its mother's back, Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda;
Images in text: Chimpanzees in Kibale National Park, Uganda.
All images © Shutterstock.com