Island Conservation Pioneers the Use of Drones to Eradicate Invasive Species

Eradicating invasive plant, animal and insect species is an important conservation priority.  It’s especially critical in isolated island habitats that threaten to be overrun if these species are not contained.  Most of the wildlife extinctions that occur in the world are concentrated in island environments, and in nearly 85% of these cases, non-native species invasions are to blame.

Island Conservation, a little-known global non-profit organization based in Santa Cruz, California, is pioneering the use of drones to eradicate invasive species and to reintroduce native species whose populations have dwindled.  Island Conservation’s initial efforts in habitats off the coast of Australia and New Zealand have proven enormously successful in restoring the health of their endangered ecosystems.  And the group, which relies on funding from wealthy individual donors and companies like Oracle and Hewlett Packard, is just getting started.

One of Island Conservation’s most ambitious and successful efforts to date commenced in 2019 when the group worked to eradicate an invasion of rodents in the famed Galapagos Islands, where an environmental emergency had just been declared.  Island’s custom-built drones – designed in conjunction with a New Zealand-based company – were used to spread poisonous bait harmful to the rodents but otherwise safe to local fauna and flora.  Once the rodent population had been controlled, the group worked with local organizations to bring back tortoises, iguanas and other displaced animals to restore the health of the island’s ecosystem.

Airborne eradication efforts are not actually new.  Various countries and organizations have been using helicopters to spray poisons to eliminate invasive species like rats since the early 1990s.  But Island Conservation may be the only private organization that currently uses drones for this purpose.  Drones, the group found, were able to target specific areas of infestation more precisely than helicopters – and they didn’t burn fuel or rely upon expensive trained pilots. The costs could be shouldered by local community-based organizations that could learn to build, and deploy the drones themselves, building local capacity and maintaining indigenous control of the eradication effort.

Island Conservation originally hoped to rely upon the DJI Phantom 4 drone but soon found that a custom-built craft with larger payload capacity and longer flight duration was better suited to the task.  The group also needed to equip its drones with special spray nozzles that could distribute large cereal grain-sized poison pellets; the smaller nozzles typically found on DJI drones to dispense fertilizer and pesticides were less useful, the group found.

Island Conservation’s next step is to improve its aerial tracking and data collection capabilities to measure the impact of its work at a more granular level.  As interest in its service surges, the group wants to convince prospective financial sponsors and clients that its efforts are worth investing in – and to demonstrate the ROI more precisely.  Nonprofit groups that conduct global reforestation campaigns have already developed such tracking and measurement systems for this purpose.  But the systems needed for Island Conservation’s habitat damage assessments and repopulation efforts likely require even greater sophistication, group officials say

Island Conservation’s work is still in its infancy, but their successes to date are undeniable.  The group has spread its work beyond Australasia to twelve different islands on eight different island groups, including the Marshall Islands, Palau and islands off the coast of Chile and Puerto Rico.  It’s also expanding its mission to include the use of aerial drones to monitor the erosion of coastal reefs and to reinvigorate damaged reef systems.  With more than 400,000 islands worldwide, accounting for 11% of all landed territory, the opportunities for drone eradication work could be boundless.

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