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Responsible Drone Use: Recommendations for Reducing Impacts to Wildlife

Drones are a useful tool in wildlife conservation and management, yet the effects of drones around wildlife should be strongly considered


We aren't new to the incredible technological feat that are Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) - Nathan and I have been honing our skills in drone use to share with others the stunning landscapes we've had the opportunity to visit. Professionals and hobbyists alike use drones to explore and analyze the world around us, from an aerial perspective, that is. 


Drones offer us the ability to view wildlife in places we otherwise could not go. Here, a flock of Greater Flamingos forage in the Camargue. Image by Nathan Rolls

From the perspective of wildlife ecology, landscape imagery ties together the larger ecological concept of where animals live and how they interact with their environment.

In wildlife management, the use of drone technology has become even more popular in recent years - UAVs have been used to count animals that congregate, especially those in colonies such as shore birds and seals, as well as find and ID creatures in remote landscapes, including the ocean. They've also been utilized as a tool for counter-poaching operations and mapping habitat. The benefits of using such technology is evident in many fields, including wildlife sciences, but certainly there's more that individual users can learn in honing their craft.

Drones continue to become an ever more popular piece of equipment for hobbyists looking to capture the incredible moments they experience in their travels and explorations. One of the most popular drone manufacturers – DJI – made approximately $2.7 billion in 2017 and the numbers only continue to increase as technologies emerge in the art of drone science and technology. 


Stunning videos and images can be captured using drones - this is an aerial view of Gasadalur Waterfall in the Faroe Islands. Image by Nathan Rolls

Drone users must learn and understand the laws associated with drone flying and use in their region, as it changes for every state, country, and property. For example, there are flight restriction zones around populated areas or areas with large crowds, near military installations and airports, in conservation areas and some national parks and preserves, and more. There are also maximum height restrictions for drones in flight, especially within a certain distance of any airport, and violations of these regulations can lead to massive fines and possibly jail time. But what about the effects we have on the wildlife in the areas in which we fly our drones? 

In one of our previous posts about honing your skills to become a better wildlife photographer, we emphasize that one of the most important parts of wildlife photography is becoming a wildlife naturalist. It's difficult to predict the mannerisms and movements of an animal if the person on the other end doesn't understand the behavioral components of the animals they are observing - this is the essence of becoming a naturalist, including understanding and respecting when the animal you are observing is being affected by your presence. 

The DJI website specifically states that the premise of flying safe requires the operator to keep the drone within their line of sight, and never fly above people, animals, or moving vehicles. However, the meaning of "line of sight" becomes distorted when the operator takes no notice of how creatures around them are reacting in association with the drone's presence. 


Nathan keeps a careful eye on the drone while it is in flight. Photo by Christa Rolls

While capturing the scenery around you, it’s imperative to become more diligent in how conscientious we are about our effects on the wildlife around us. 

In November 2018, a video went viral of a mother and baby bear running up a steep snow bank in Russia. Many posts of the video captioned the scene as a lesson in perseverance and persistence – if you try hard enough, you can defeat that uphill battle. The reality of the situation is that some creatures have more sensitivity to noises and vibrations than humans do, and the high pitched frequency of the buzzing drone startled the mother bear and her cub, thus putting them in a precarious situation that could have cost the young bear its life. 

National Geographic's headline article about using drones near wildlife. Photo from Nationalgeographic.com

Professionals working with National Geographic and the like have the means and equipment to have near-silent technologies (generally priced far higher than anything a regular drone user would purchase outside of professional grade and quality equipment) as well as the naturalist know-how to integrate themselves for days, weeks, or months at a time to habituate wildlife to their presence without affecting them outwardly. These people are *professionals* and it should be noted that not just anyone can approach an animal with their drone. 

YouTube is riddled with videos of wildlife being flushed, or flying or running away, because of the obvious presence of a drone. For example, prior to our trip to the Camargue in Southern France to video and photograph Greater Flamingos and other wildlife in the region, we looked up other videos produced from the area. Drones were flown directly up to flocks of wading and foraging flamingos, and unsurprisingly, these videos were of the birds flying away from the camera. Without beating around the bush, this is harassment. 

So, how do we combat this issue and prevent it from occurring in the field? 

Aside from becoming a naturalist, we suggest having a spotter when out videoing in proximity to wildlife. This is easier with two people, as the person operating the drone has to both look at their screen to see what kind of footage they’re getting as well as look up to make sure their drone is still well within their line of sight. Trying to monitor the wildlife in the area is an added challenge here. 


Taking the time to learn and understand more about the animals we spend our time around can make us better naturalists and help reduce our impact on wildlife. Photo by Christa Rolls

When we fly our drone, I always have my binoculars on me, assess the area prior to flight time to see what kind of wildlife might be in the vicinity, and I consistently watch those individuals as the drone launches and moves about in the air. As soon as we notice a change in the animals’ behavior in obvious association to the drone’s presence (or ours), we bring the drone back and discontinue flying in that area. Time for Plan B on footage location! 

What effect might we have on wildlife while in the field?

At any given time of the year, wildlife have to consistently make decisions about how they are going to use their energy. 

These decisions might be defending their territory during the breeding season against another male seeking to usurp their territory, or collecting food for themselves or their young. Moreover, many animals might be saving up for fat stores in the event that food availability is low, picking and choosing how they will move to get added sustenance. 

These are instinctual and important life history decisions for different kinds of wildlife. When we throw ourselves, and our drones, into the mix, we upset this balance. While animals can adapt, even those that are used to humans can cumulatively be negatively affected by our presence. When our drones scare off animals or cause birds to come dive bomb the perceived intruder, they are using up essential energy that they would otherwise be able to use for other essential purposes.

In addition, be cautious about flying in areas you know endangered or sensitive wildlife inhabit, as well as during breeding seasons or other essential energy-utilization times. In the United States, drone use near endangered or threatened wildlife is considered “take”, as it is harassment of the animal, and can incur heavy fines if the individual is caught. 

Speaking of those dive-bombing birds, if you’ve ever been dive-bombed by an upset bird, you’ll know they can have a heavy hit. Just imagine what that would do to the propellers on your drone. And how that can affect the health and safety of the bird as well. 

While in the Faroe Islands, we had to be very cautious and conscientious about where we flew our drone because Black Oystercatchers are INCREDIBLY territorial. Just the sound of the drone launching from across a body of water would be enough to call in at least half a dozen birds to expel the perceived predator and threat. Without a spotter in this situation, we would have known only too late the impending swarm of birds honing in on the drone, and it would have been lost to a Faroese lake, as would possibly an Oystercatcher. 


About 60 seconds after this footage was taken, we had to discontinue using the drone in this location, as Oystercatchers nesting nearby became visibly agitated from across the water. Image by Nathan Rolls

It’s our responsibility as ethical and responsible drone users and wildlife caretakers to limit the effects we have on the animals around us. 

Many locations also recognize an abuse in drone flight around wildlife as harassment and as such, have implemented laws and regulations for the prohibition of drone use in many places. The more people abuse the privilege of getting to use and fly these recreational drones, the more limits everyone will have in utilizing UAVs for the incredible tool they are. Setting a good example for ourselves and others can help to limit these regulations by being responsible drone owners and users - we urge you to speak out and report anyone you see improperly using or abusing the privilege of flying their drone. 

Check out some of the incredible footage we were able to capture in the Camargue and the Faroe Islands while respecting our subjects' space.

Feel free to message us with any questions about best practices in drone use!


Happy flying,

Christa and Nathan