30/01/2020

Conservationists use drones to help save endangered giraffe

Conservationists from Bristol Zoological Society are pioneering a new approach to wildlife conservation with help from technology experts at the University of Bristol.


A team from the Society and the University have been using new techniques in machine-learning and drone technology to help track endangered giraffe. It is hoped that the technology could make a real difference to wildlife conservation projects worldwide.

On a recent trip to Cameroon, West Africa, a team from the Society and the University tested the drones, along with sensor technologies and deployment techniques to monitor populations of the Critically Endangered Kordofan giraffe at Bénoué National Park.


The trip was funded by Cabot Institute for the Environment, Bristol Zoological Society and The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. 

Dr Gráinne McCabe, Head of Field Conservation and Science at Bristol Zoological Society, said: “There has been a significant and drastic decline recently of larger mammals in the park and it is vital that accurate measurements of populations can be established to guide our conservation actions.” 

Dr Caspian Johnson, Conservation Science Lecturer at Bristol Zoological Society, added: “Bénoué National Park is very difficult to patrol on foot and large parts are virtually inaccessible, presenting a huge challenge for wildlife monitoring. What’s more, the giraffe are very well camouflaged and often found in small, transient groups.” 

The main threats to Kordofan giraffe in this region have been competition for food with herders bringing their cattle into the national park and stripping leaves from the trees to feed their herds. This leaves little food for giraffe during the prolonged dry season. Poaching is also a suspected threat.

Keen to identify the best strategy for airborne wildlife monitoring to address these threats, Dr McCabe approached Dr Matt Watson from the University of Bristol’s School of Earth Sciences, and Dr Tom Richardson from the Aerospace Department, and member of the Bristol Robotics Laboratory (BRL).

The team were able to draw on successful collaborations using drones to monitor and measure volcanic emissions to begin developing a system for wildlife monitoring. 

“On the surface this might seem relatively easy but imagine an area the size of greater London – (approximately 1,600 square kilometres) – heavily wooded, in which you are trying to find and identify an estimated population of just 20 to 30 Kordofan giraffe,” said Dr Watson.

“It is likely that we will need more than one type of drone, and several different sensors to allow us to operate 24 hours a day and throughout the year. Modern multispectral cameras combined with machine learning and high-performance vehicles will need to be fully automated to cover an area of this size. Combine that with remote, constrained field operations and we have an interesting set of engineering problems to tackle,” said Dr Richardson.
Kordofan giraffe Dr Watson, Dr Richardson and Dr Tilo Burghardt from Computer Science are now working with Bristol Zoological Society to put together a large-scale proposal to develop the technologies required for this challenge. 

“A machine learning based system that we develop for the Kordofan giraffe will be applicable to a range of large mammals. Combine that with low-cost aircraft systems capable of automated deployment without the need for large open spaces to launch and land and we will be able to make a real difference to conservation projects worldwide,” said Dr Watson.

The group are planning to return in early 2021 and would be keen to hear from any potential project partners, either individuals or organisations. If you would like to find out more about how you or your organisation can get involved, please contact development@bristolzoo.org.uk

Since 2016, conservationists from Bristol Zoological Society have been working to help safeguard the future of Kordofan giraffe in Cameroon. 

It is believed that there has been an 80 per cent fall in the giraffe population over the past 30 years. There is now thought to be as few as 2,000 individuals of this sub-species left in Africa, out of a total giraffe population of about 80,000.

Bristol Zoological Society is working to protect the Kordofan giraffe by helping to fund eco-guards to patrol the Bénoué National Park and a network of other protected areas in northern Cameroon. The Society has also helped to pay for camera traps which are used to identify giraffe and assess which animals are living in groups together.

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