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How to save endangered orangutans? The answer may lie in astrophysics

Updated: Sep 1, 2022

In July 2016, after years of illegal hunting and habitat destruction brought on by large-scale logging in the Bornean forest, the IUCN declared the Bornean orangutan critically endangered. This rating—the most grave designation before “extinct in the wild,” and finally, “extinct”—indicates that this orangutan species is in danger of dying out unless something is done to mitigate logging, poaching, and palm oil harvesting in Borneo. These threats are especially devastating for orangutans, who give birth every 6-7 years, since their slow reproduction makes population growth difficult. Every orangutan species is now critically endangered; without effective conservation efforts, their decline will soon become more rapid and more difficult to reverse.

Bornean orangutans in the wild (WWF)

Monitoring the number of individuals living in the wild is crucial to orangutan conservation. A new collaboration between astrophysicists and conservationists aims to locate Bornean orangutans with thermal infrared technology, a method more commonly used to measure the brightness of distant stars. Dr. Claire Burke of Liverpool John Moores University explained to New Scientist how researchers from her university and the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) used thermal-imaging cameras attached to drones to identify Bornean orangutans in the wild.

Though the researchers were unsure if the method would work, they were pleasantly surprised by what they found: the thermal camera made it easy to see the orangutans, even on foggy days and at night. According to Dr. Burke, the process was most difficult when the temperature of the ground was close to the animals' body temperatures. In order to distinguish the primates from the environment, the team had to schedule drone flights before 9 a.m or after 7 p.m., when ground temperatures were cooler.

Thermal image of an orangutan in Sabah, Malaysia (Liverpool John Moores University and WWF)

This project is not the first time the group has used infrared cameras to keep track of endangered species. The research team previously used the same technology to identify spider monkeys in Mexico and riverine rabbits in South Africa, and they will soon begin a study with Lac Alaotra bamboo lemurs in Madagascar. The researchers, who call themselves “astro-ecologists,” are also working on an algorithm to distinguish animals based on each species’ unique skin surface temperature patterns.

Will thermal imaging be the monumental change that saves orangutans from extinction? Probably not. But this use of new technology for conservation is a sign that the world is becoming more aware of the "extinction crisis," as well as its moral and environmental implications. WWF program manager Nicole Loweth, who worked on the Bornean orangutan imaging project, said that as more animals go extinct, “we must embrace and scale up innovative approaches to monitoring wildlife populations, to better protect them for generations to come.” Though star-spotting technology may not stop orangutan extinction in its tracks, the astro-ecologists are on the right path. The conservation methods of the past haven’t worked. Now, the only way to create change is by doing what hasn’t been tried before.

By Ruby Mustill


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