The drone market is booming and it is changing the way we use airspace, with some unforeseen consequences. The uptake of consumer drones has been swift. But despite their obvious benefits, concerns are growing about impacts on wildlife. Now, a new drone video posted to ViralHog captures a bear cub struggling to follow its mom up a snowy mountain slope in far east Russia. The information accompanying the video says that it was captured on June 19, 2018, in the Magadan region of the country. “It was shot by a drone, but it doesn’t matter how far away it was, because I can tell from the bears’ behaviour that it was too close,” says Clayton Lamb of the University of Alberta, who studies grizzly bears in the Canadian Rockies and uses drones to map the area where they live.
Throughout the video, he notes, the mother is constantly looking up at the drone and clearly bothered by its presence. At some point, the footage zooms in, probably because the drone itself was swooping closer. That, Lamb says, explains why the mother unexpectedly swats at the cub, causing it to fall. She probably read the drone’s approach as a kind of attack and was trying to push her cub away.
Professional wildlife filmmakers have turned to drones, using them to capture shots of frolicking river dolphins in Planet Earth II and Galápagos sea lions hunting yellowfin tuna in Blue Planet II. But documentary crews often include naturalists who are sensitive to the behaviours of their subjects.
By harassing animals, drones can chase them into dangerous positions. They can interrupt hunts, causing high levels of stress, chase animals over long distances, and drive them away from sources of food or parts of the landscape they depend upon.
While drones make for an incredible tool for documenting and learning about the world’s wildlife they must be used with sensitivity to wildlife “A lot of people don’t understand that there are consequences for animals when they change their behaviour,” says David W. Johnston, director of the Duke Marine Lab’s unmanned-aerial-vehicle program and a pioneer in the use of drone technology for whale research. Over time, animals that are consistently bothered by drones may develop maladaptive behaviours, like responding incorrectly to other threats in their environment, or they may waste precious energy by attempting to defend themselves.
The marine sanctuary in Monterey Bay, California, recently was forced to crack down on drones after authorities received complaints about drones being used to harass seals.
Johnston discloses that several researchers have begun to develop best practices for drones and offer specialized consulting geared toward helping drone pilots minimize their impact on local wildlife. Two groups of researchers have compiled guidelines for using drones. Both emphasize precaution in cases where it’s unclear how a given species will react.
Ornithologist Andrew Barnas has conducted studies that measure the impact of drones on polar bears and snow geese. “If you suspect there is a chance that your recreational use could negatively impact an animal, make the responsible choice and don’t fly,” says Barnas. “Respect the wildlife. The likes and retweets are not worth it.”
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