India adopted lightweight drones for studying marine megafauna, specifically dugongs.

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India adopted lightweight drones for studying marine life. In a first, small drones help study India’s threatened marine species During the survey, the team recorded mother & calf pairs of dugongs, sea turtles, spotted ray , zebra shark, stingrays, needlefish, squids & several fish shoals.

Dugong survey

The drone was flown at a height of about two hundred to three hundred meters to first scan an area & then brought down to 80-100 meters to closely follow the species. (Sagar Rajpurkar) Along the coasts of the Gulf of Kutch, Gulf of Mannar, Palk Bay & the Andaman & Nicobar Islands lives a slow-moving marine creature that loves seagrass the dugong. Assessed as vulnerable by the IUCN Red List of threatened species, this ‘sea cow’ is also considered regionally endangered in India as only two hundred to three hundred individuals remain. This prompted the govt to initiate the species Recovery Programme in 2015 for his or her long-term conservation and persistence.

But studying dugongs is easier said than done. You cannot spot them using traditional methods like boat surveys and thanks to their small population size, their sightings are very rare. Australian researchers had previously employed aerial surveys to review the distribution, population, and habitats of dugongs.

Since 2019, India has also adopted light-weight unmanned aerial vehicles for studying marine megafauna specifically dugongs. The surveys, led by Sagar Rajpurkar from Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun, were carried out along with others in Andaman & Nicobar Islands within the Marine Protected Areas of Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park & Rani Jhansi Marine National Park & adjoining areas. The paper detailing the survey was published recently in Current Science.

The researchers note that unmanned aerial surveys can help cover large spatial scales, reduce survey effort & time, and are cost-effective.

 

“The lightweight drones we used were less noisy and didn’t disturb the marine mammals. It was flown at a height of about two hundred to three hundred meters to first scan an area for dugongs & then brought down to 80-100 meters to closely follow the species. Since the video resolution is high from even this height, it can be used in the future to identify individuals, track movements, & monitor the behavior of individuals,” explains Dr. Anant Pande, one among the authors from the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun.

“The Ministry of Civil Aviation,India (MCA) had recently announced that no prior permission or approvals are needed for drones used for research. This can pave the way for brand spanking new research in remote areas,” he adds.

Though the drone is capable of flying into the sea up to Ten km, the team used it for about 2.5 to three km. Dr. Pande adds that since dugongs live near the coast, it was easy to study them from land & offshore surveys if needed, for example, for dolphins or whales, can be done by flying the drone from alittle boat with a platform. During the survey, the team recorded mother and calf pairs of dugongs, sea turtles, spotted eagle ray, zebra shark, stingrays, needlefish, squids, and a number of other fish shoals.

Rays were spotted during the survey (Sagar Rajpurkar) “Unmanned aerial vehicles surveys should be adopted as a tool by State Forest Departments to watch marine fauna of conservation concern & for tackling illegal activities within the Marine Protected Areas,” concludes the paper.

Dr. K. Sivakumar, Scientist and Project Coordinator of the Dugong Recovery Program at Wildlife Institute of India add that future plans include drone surveys to map seagrass habitats, monitor marine megafauna & conduct a spatial assessment of Marine Protected Areas.

India adopted lightweight drones for studying marine megafauna, specifically dugongs.

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