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Drones help monitor polar bears on Wrangel Island

24 april 2020
Unique studies started on the territory of the Wrangel Island nature reserve in Chukotka. With the support of WWF-Russia, for the first time experts are testing a polar bear den search using remote-piloted vehicles.
“The islands of Wrangel and Herald are not accidentally called the “maternity home of polar bears”. This is where the majority of pregnant females of the Chukotka-Alaskan polar bear population lie in dens every year”, - says Mikhail Stishov, WWF-Russia project coordinator for Arctic biodiversity conservation. - Understanding the importance of this territory, we readily supported a new research project. WWF passed four professional quadrocopters to the reserve, two of them have cameras with a thermal imager. And at the end of last year, with our support, nature reserve staff took drone control courses”.

Polar bears are usually counted in March-April, when females with their cubs leave their birth dens and take their children to sea ice, where they teach them survival and seal hunting skills. The traditional methodology is the following: specialists are divided into groups and several times a week (depending on constantly changing weather) go on snowmobiles around the areas with the highest concentration of dens. At the same time, they inspect each slope, valley and other places where a layer of snow allows the predator to dig out temporary housing. Finding a den is not an easy task. Firstly, most often dens are located high, and secondly, the bright spring sun, reflected on the snow as in a mirror, greatly complicates the process of finding the entrance, which is only a little more than a meter in diameter.

A drone with a thermal camera helps to overcome these difficulties: the temperature inside the den is much higher than outside, and when flying around the territory, a thermal halo can be seen on the drone control panel, and the expert can record and examine the find in detail with a high-resolution camera.

Polar bear dens on drone camera and thermal imager
Wrangel Island Nature Reserve / WWF-Russia

The technique was successful. The work was carried out by eight people in two groups on different areas. On the second day, the drones soared into the sky. Four launches over the first found den (total flight time 1 hour 40 minutes) showed that it was inhabited. Specialists were able to examine in detail not only the female bear, but also its two cubs. The animals reacted quite calmly, although the drone pilots did not violate the comfort zone and observed social distancing.

Despite the freezing temperatures of -25 C and the north wind, the experiment to examine the den was a success. But the main task - to detect the den using a drone - has not been solved.

“Unfortunately, due to weather conditions and tight deadlines, it was not possible to work out the methodology in full, the search for the den with the help of a drone camera was not successful,” says Leonid Zaika, head of the Department of Ecotourism Development of the Wrangel Island Nature Reserve. “However, the experience gained and mistakes, without which it is impossible to implement a brand new methodology, will allow for a detailed analysis and preparation for next year’s census. The resulting photo and video material is of great scientific value, with its help specialists will understand the age and condition of the animals, the distinctive features of their behavior. Most importantly, we understood that the use of drones in polar bear monitoring makes it safer and greatly facilitates the search and study of both the dens and the animals.”
The moments of the expedition
Wrangel Island Nature Reserve / WWF-Russia
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