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

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 orangutans are on the way to dying out unless something is done soon to mitigate logging, poaching, and palm oil harvesting in Borneo. Such threats are especially serious for species like orangutans, which 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 quickly become more rapid and more difficult to reverse.

Bornean orangutans in the wild (WWF)

Crucial to the conservation of orangutans—and all endangered animals—is monitoring the number of individuals living in the wild. A new collaboration between astrophysicists and conservationists aims to keep track of Bornean orangutans using thermal infrared technology, a method used more commonly to measure the brightness of distant stars. On April 9th, a presentation given by Dr. Claire Burke of Liverpool John Moores University explained how researchers from her university, the WWF, and HUTAN used thermal-imaging cameras attached to drones to efficiently find and identify Bornean orangutans in the wild.

Though the researchers weren’t sure if the new 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 that of the animals they were looking for. 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: they previously used the technology to identify spider monkeys in Mexico and riverine rabbits in South Africa, and they soon will begin a study with Lac Alaotra bamboo lemurs in Madagascar. The researchers, who call themselves “astroecologists,” 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 so-called 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 astroecologists 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 done before.

By Ruby Mustill


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