Scientists have long deployed drones to do everything from counting caribou to collecting whale snot. Now the flying machines are helping to rescue animals as climate change takes an increasingly deadly toll on wildlife.
For the past year, a California videographer named Douglas Thron has chased climate catastrophes around the world, piloting drones outfitted with infrared cameras and spotlights to help find survivors of hurricanes and firestorms whose frequency and intensity are growing with rising temperatures. After Thron locates the animals, wildlife rescuers can move them to safety.
“The potential for these drones to save animals, whether wild or domestic, and help in their recovery is just huge,” says Thron.
As a young environmental activist in the 1990s, Thron took to the skies in an old Cessna single-prop and other planes more than a hundred times to photograph the logging of ancient redwood forests in California.
Thron, 50, has worked as an aerial cinematographer in recent years, shooting high-end homes for real estate firms and wildlife for documentary filmmakers. After a Category Five hurricane slammed into the Bahamas in September 2019, Thron volunteered with conservation group Sea Shepherd to bring relief supplies to the devastated islands. He also brought his drones.
Thron flies two drones for animal rescues. Both are equipped with infrared cameras, spotlights, and high-intensity zoom lenses. “You can count whiskers on a cat from hundreds of feet away and not disturb it,” he says. The technology is ideal for locating stranded animals.
As Thron dispatched drones over the Bahamas to document the disaster wrought by Hurricane Dorian, he discovered scores of stranded dogs among the rubble. When Thron spotted one, he pinpointed the animal’s location with GPS so volunteers could rescue it. The sheer scale of the destruction, though, meant dogs could be difficult to see, so he attached an infrared camera to the drone to detect their body heat.
Thron stayed in the Bahamas until December when bushfires ignited across Australia, eventually incinerating an England-sized swath of the country. He packed up two drones and flew to Sydney, where he reached out to groups like Humane Society International and WWF to offer help rescuing injured wildlife. One of his first stops was Kangaroo Island in South Australia, where firestorms wiped out half its population of some 50,000 koalas.
The fires killed or displaced nearly 3 billion animals nationwide, according to the most recent scientific estimates, a number that includes dozens of vulnerable species, such as the koala. “You couldn’t walk 10 meters without coming across a dead koala or wallaby,” says Evan Quartermain, program director for Humane Society International (HSI) in Australia, who worked with Thron on Kangaroo Island.
For several weeks, Thron and wildlife rescuers fanned out across the island at night to scan the charred landscape with the drone’s infrared camera. When a koala-shaped heat signature appeared on the controller’s video screen, Thron activated the drone’s spotlight and zoomed in with another camera to verify the animal’s identity and assess its condition.
Thron and his drone made a life-and-death difference for koalas, according to Quartermain. The surviving koalas were spread out over thousands of acres of eucalyptus plantations and risked starvation as they clung to lifeless trees. “We needed to be able to quickly scan areas to either rescue remaining koalas or mark them as clear so we could move on to another segment,” he says. Rescuers captured injured koalas and took them to rehabilitation centers for treatment.
Impressed with Thron’s ability to locate koalas, environmental group WWF Australia funded his search-and-rescue drone missions in the states of New South Wales and Queensland as bushfires engulfed the region.
He was also able to help wombats. The furry marsupials, which live in underground burrows, were thought to have largely survived the fires but then faced starvation when they emerged into a habitat denuded of vegetation. Once wombats were found, volunteers set up food and water stations for the animals.
When rains finally extinguished the fires, activists began the monumental task of determining how much of Australia’s unique native wildlife survived. Stuart Blanch, a senior manager for land clearing and restoration at WWF Australia, noted that 18 million hectares burned in southeast Australia as well as in parts of eastern, western, and northern Australia. “There’s just not enough people to survey that safely,” he says. “We wanted to see how we can use drone-based surveys in monitoring wildlife as we transition to recovery.”
Backed by WWF, Thron spent months flying drones over devastated landscapes, where he once found a lone koala in a burned-out forest. He says at times, though, he’d search for six hours, cover a territory the size of San Francisco, and not find a single living animal. “It was depressing.”
HSI has since acquired a drone of its own and Quartermain has obtained his pilot’s license. At WWF, Blanch aims to develop protocols to standardize the use of drones for wildlife rescue and recovery when the next climate-driven disaster inevitably strikes.
“You can count whiskers on a cat from hundreds of feet away and not disturb it”
After more than six months in Australia rescuing wildlife, Thron returned to California in August. But his trip home was soon cut short by the latest wave of climate-related disasters. When Hurricane Laura hit Louisiana, he jumped on a plane and began flying his drone over flattened homes in the city of Lake Charles to rescue cats and dogs. Next, he flew to Oregon, where wildfires incinerated the town of Talent and left pets lost in the ashes.
His drone rescues have been a self-funded passion project, supplemented by donations. But he recently struck a deal with documentary media company CuriosityStream that provides some pay and covers his expenses for a series titled “Doug to the Rescue” that will premier in early 2021.
“I knew not only could I save the individual animals but also generate the publicity to get people aware of the potential of this technology,” says Thron.