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View From the Edge

In Tanzania, researchers are using drones to develop a clearer picture chimpanzee behavior and human evolution

In 2003, while working as field researchers in Fongoli, Senegal, Alex Piel and his wife, Fiona Stewart, contracted the chimpanzee bug. Piel and Stewart were among the first in a long succession of researchers to be inspired by the Fongoli chimpanzees’ uniquely human behavior. For instance, the chimpanzees often sharpened sticks to spear their dinner, a mouse-sized primate called a bush baby. Also, the woodland-savanna landscape of southeast Senegal, where Fongoli is located, with its long distances between food- and water-rich forests, had caused the chimpanzees to become peripatetic – sort of like American retirees in RVs, chasing warm weather down the interstate. Such roaming behavior posed a basic yet vexing research problem: with such large and often remote territories, how do you keep tabs on the savanna chimpanzee?

Five years later, in 2008, Piel and Stewart’s work led them to the Issa Valley, in the Ugalla region of western Tanzania, where they encountered terrain similar to Fongoli’s, and chimpanzees whose ranges stretched to around 125 square miles. “In places like Uganda, the chimps’ ranges are probably about five or six kilometers,” Piel told me recently. “Here it’s a much vaster area.” That year, Piel and Stewart launched the Ugalla Primate Project, an ongoing collaborative research project focused on the chimpanzees and other primates in Ugalla. When I spoke to Piel, he and Stewart were in Arusha, in Tanzania’s north, and preparing to leave for the project’s research station, about a 900-mile drive west. The journey, normally routine, would be trickier this time. “This is our first trip with our eight-month-old,” Piel said. “Each day is an accomplishment.”  

You might notice a theme developing: Piel and Stewart–now “Drs.” Piel and Stewart – are drawn to the challenge of distance and the rewards of accomplishment. Over the past seven years, they have built the Ugalla Primate Project from a self-funded passion project to a full-time, 13-member hub for chimpanzee and other primate research collaborations. The project’s success has a lot to do with the fact that the Issa Valley is similar to what the African savanna was six million years ago. Having the ability to closely track how the region’s chimpanzees move may provide clues as to how our ancestors took their first steps. In order to lend a hand to science’s effort to decipher the biped origin story, Piel and Stewart recently introduced into the ancient Issa Valley a technology born from the zenith of human evolution. “Drones are hot,” Piel told me. “And donors like to fund them.”

photo of people looking into the skyphoto by Jeff KerbyLast summer, the Ugalla Primate Project teamed up with the Jane Goodall Institute and a nonprofit called Conservation Drones, to test the application of unmanned aerial vehicles to survey chimpanzee habitat and distribution in Tanzania.

Last summer, the Ugalla Primate Project teamed up with the Jane Goodall Institute and a nonprofit called Conservation Drones, to test the application of unmanned aerial vehicles to improve the project’s efforts to survey Issa’s chimpanzee habitat and distribution, as well as the various human-caused threats to wildlife in the region. Led by the primate biologist and co-founder of Conservation Drones, Serge Wich, his technical director, ecologist Jeff Kerby, and Sander van Andel, a project officer for the National Committee of The Netherlands, the team was able to take steps toward building a comprehensive ecological map of the Issa Valley.

In order to determine just how effective drones can be in producing land surveys, the team also walked the same transect being mapped by their two small, high-resolution camera-equipped drones – a IRIS+ quad-copter from 3drobotics company in the USA and a X5 fixed-wing – converted into a drone by the Malaysian company HornbillSurveys.com, that specializes in customizing unmanned aerial systems (UAS) for mapping and conservation projects. “Our work in June and July was quite important because we were calibrating the accuracy of the drones,” Piel said. “Now, we’re analyzing the data, writing up our findings, and looking toward 2016 and 2017 for a couple of different applications.”

photo of a man and a small aircraftphoto by Jeff KerbySander van Andel, a project officer for the National Committee of The Netherlands, launches the X5 drone

“I think there are three core problems that these systems can help to address,” Serge Wich said. “The first is wildlife distribution and density. The second is lands cover and monitoring. And the third is anti-poaching efforts.” For the Ugalla Primate Project, all of these are everyday problems. While primate poaching is rare in the Ugalla region, chimpanzees do sometimes get caught in rope or cable snares set for buffalo and other wildlife. Controlled burning, herding and forest clearing, however, are growing problems – and ones that could have a profound effect on chimpanzee research.

“As you move east from where we are, chimpanzees are very spread out, so we stop encountering them, and we don’t know exactly why,” Piel said. “There could be no food out there, no forest, no water; it’s an area that researchers really haven’t been in to.” Piel says that by assessing the drone imagery of the areas where his team ventured this summer, they will be able to better identify those areas they have yet to penetrate on foot.

Eventually, and with enough flight time, Piel believes drones can be incredibly accurate in determining key exactitudes in the Issa Valley’s overall landscape. Specifically, Piel hopes drones will allow his team to know precisely where water and food sources, certain species of vegetation, and human interferences start and stop. “There is a very chimp-centric question here about living on the edge,” he said. “Where is that edge, and why is it there? Which leads to the next question: how far can they go?”

When it comes to unraveling the mystery of human evolution, the question of edges is crucial. And finding areas on the planet unaltered by the kind of devastating techniques made possible by that evolution – poaching, burning, deforestation – is exceedingly rare. The combined promise of drones’ ability to effectively monitor and collect data on both the altered and not, is the reason why the Ugalla Primate Project has secured funding for two more years of test flights.

“So, there’s a behavioral question on the one hand, and then a conservation, ecosystem question on the other,” Piel told me. “But it’s the same technology, the same machine” analyzing both. “We keep going back to the well,” he continued, “and finding we can use [drones] in slightly different ways.”

Andrew Lewis
Andrew Lewis is a New York City-based journalist. His work focuses on travel and the environment. He is a regular contributor to Outside magazine.

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