Mammal Research Institute will now use drones to study whales with EWT

Posted on 16 September 2021 By Anita Froneman

The Mammal Research Institute’s (MRI) Whale Unit at the University of Pretoria has partnered with the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) to use drones as part of their latest research on Southern right whales.

Obtaining the necessary licences to operate a drone legally is a laborious undertaking with many organisations and individuals waiting for years due to the amount of red tape. The EWT obtained their licence in January this year, and so can be of valuable help to other worthy institutions like the MRI.

Southern right whale and calf. Credit: Anton Crone

‘The main practical advantage of a drone is its ability to go places that humans and their traditional modes of transport can’t, and the most significant benefit is that it can safely perform the same tasks by eliminating the need for people to get into dangerous situations,’ the EWT said on their website. ‘For people working in conservation, these benefits apply not only to airborne activities but also to those conducted in places that are hazardous for humans.’

The MRI’s study includes recording among other things the body conditions and calving rates of South Africa’s southern rights, and they will be presenting their findings at the 2nd Drone Users Conference: Conservation & Agriculture in Stellenbosch from 29 November 2021 to 1 December 2021.

According to Good Things Guy, Dr Els Vemeulen, Research Manager of the MRI Whale Unit, said: ‘Drone technology has revolutionized the way we conduct our research. Using drones, we can gather overhead images of right whales every year, allowing us to track the variation in their body condition over time in a very cost-effective manner, and collect additional photo-identification data, which allows us to assess the residency time of individual animals on the South African breeding ground.

‘Also, an aerial view of these animals reveals more information on their behaviour than viewing them from a boat. It is truly a unique piece of technology that can be adjusted for various research projects, and we aim to apply it in much more of our research going forward.’


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