Star-spotting Technology will Count Orangutans in Borneo

Star-spotting Technology will Count Orangutans in Borneo

Star-spotting Technology will Count Orangutans in Borneo
Image Credits: Gizmodo

In an attempt to save and preserve this endangered species, scientists from different fields of life have collaborated to monitor the population of Orangutans in the Bornean forests.

An international team of conservationists, astrophysicists, and ecologists came together to introduce better ways of detecting orangutans in Borneo. According to a presentation at the Unifying Tropical Ecology conference, representatives from WWF, HUTAN, and Liverpool John Moores University have successfully developed a system that can examine these creatures in the Bornean forest canopy, by using the drone technology.


The orangutans are an extant species of great apes that are only found in the rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra, these days. They spend most of their time in trees and are known as the most arboreal ones among all the types of great apes. In contrast to the black or brown hair of gorillas and chimpanzees, they have reddish-brown hair. They are considered one of the most intelligent primates as they construct sleeping nests (for themselves) from foliage and branches, by making use of a variety of sophisticated tools. Although the counting of these nests gives us an estimate of the number of orangutans, this procedure is time-consuming and costly due to the large area that needs to be surveyed.

Benefits of Technology

Given the fact that drones can quickly cover large distances of difficult ground, scientists decided to incorporate this remarkable technology into the monitoring of endangered wildlife. In addition to that, they fitted thermal-imaging cameras on drones to maximize the benefits of this amazing tool. The latest study mentioned that these cameras have the ability to detect animals, at any time of the day or night, because of their heat signatures.

In an attempt to gain some physical evidence, the researching team conducted 28 flights at 2 different sites over a period of 6 days. They found 41 orangutans from the air and all of them were confirmed by ground observers. For the sake of distinguishing the animals from their surroundings, these flights were performed before 9 am or after 7 pm. Dr. Claire Burke, an Astro-ecologist at the Liverpool John Moores University, talked about the benefits of this technological technique in the following words:

“We tested the technology on orangutans in the dense tropical rainforest of Sabah in Malaysia. In thermal images, animals shine in a similar way to stars and galaxies, so we used techniques from astronomy to detect and distinguish them. We were not sure at all whether this would work, but with the thermal-infrared camera, we could see the orangutans quite clearly because of their body heat, even during fog or at night. The biggest difficulties occur when the temperature of the ground is very similar to that of the animal we are trying to detect, so the images from morning or evening flights are more reliable. Absolute surface temperatures cannot be used to differentiate species as animal body temperatures change with that of their environment.

Innovative Approaches to Monitor Wildlife

The study explained that given the circumstances where a number of species are endangered, it is almost a necessity to introduce innovative technology to monitor their populations. Researchers believe that the continuous monitoring of orangutans could also give them some valuable information about these animals. Nicola Loweth, an Asian Program Manager at WWF who was also a part of the researching team, agreed to this fact by saying,

“As ever more species are decimated, due to human activity such as deforestation, we must embrace and scale up innovative approaches to monitoring wildlife populations, to better protect them for generations to come.”

Similarly, she mentioned that the success of the drone technology with thermal-imaging cameras is a massive step in developing a wide range of applications that could prove to be extremely beneficial for wildlife conservation as a whole.

Other Findings and Future Goals

During the field trial, scientists also found a group of proboscis monkeys (alongside orangutans). Their smaller size and group formation allowed the researchers to differentiate the heat signatures as orangutans like to stay in solitary or in pairs. Likewise, pygmy elephants were traced during this exercise through an oil palm plantation. In order to enhance the efficiency of this system, Astro-ecologists are now trying to develop an algorithm that could identify different species on the basis of their thermal fingerprint. Burke concluded the presentation with these intentions and said,

“In the future, we hope to be able to track, distinguish and monitor large numbers of different species of animals in real time, all around the globe, so that this technology can be used to make a real impact on conservation and stop poaching before it happens.”

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