Bird counting with Senegal Flying Labs

Given developments in the drone space in Senegal in recent time, one would be forgiven to think that officials no longer need a lot of convincing to make use of the unmanned aerial systems where they are needed.

Alas, one would not entirely be right.

That is what Senegal Flying Labs (SFL) recently discovered, when they gathered members of the National Parks Directorate and the Marine Protected Marine Areas Directorate in a room and tried to convince them to use drone technology to solve the bird counting problems they have been facing in their efforts to conserve the avian creatures in wetland habitats in the country.

The officials did come round finally though, after a round of training programmes in which the officials were introduced to the workings of drone technology and remote sensing software; following which they jointly signed a partnership that is part of training and research on the use of new technologies for sustainable natural resource management and biodiversity conservation.

This partnership will enable:

  • The development and implementation of training and research programs;
  • The development and implementation of active and bioecological surveillance strategies;
  • Facilitating access to scientific knowledge (exchange of documents, publications, seminars);
  • Technical and administrative support based on identified specific needs;
  • Promotion and participation in all forms of exchanges that may be of interest to their structures and staff.

After presentations to officials in the ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development (MEDD) by the SFL’s Sonja Beschart, Tiamiyou Radji and their colleagues were met with mixed reactions, the drone services start-up was then invited as an observer to the international Bird Counting Day celebrations in Djoudj National Bird Sanctuary, which lies on the southeast bank of the Senegal River in Senegal, in northern Biffeche; where they took the opportunity to “validate some theories and approaches.”

Can you count the birds?

The sanctuary provides a range of wetland habitats which are very popular with migrating birds, many of which would have just crossed the Sahara. Of the almost 400 species of birds that call the area home, the most visible are pelicans and flamingos. One can also find aquatic warblers migrating from Europe, though in less conspicuous numbers.

So the team took out their DJI Phantom 4 drone for a spin around sanctuary, with the purpose of conducting demonstrations on how the drone could be used to fly to areas previously hard to reach and monitor the birds by collecting data, which would then be analysed using an Artificial Intelligence software programme called ATLAS, which can be used to store images, creating maps, detecting and counting objects.

“The SFL team’s intervention was primarily aimed at solving two major problems involving the monitoring of waterbirds in the Djoudj Birds National Park (PNOD), namely the reliability of the estimate of large concentrations and the inaccessibility of certain areas, which results in significant bird counts being omitted from the count,” the start-up said in a statement announcing the partnership.

“In response to these problems, the SFL team’s fieldwork boils down to testing the sensitivity of dendrocygnes, pelicans and flamingos to different types of drones flying in their vicinity; do the bird count in the pelican birds’ nesting; and count the birds in the Lake Manatee area, which is usually inaccessible.”

Counting birds in an area that is not part of the counting areas (the “Lake Manatee”) because of its inaccessibility.

The sensitivity tests were done to check the minimum height which the drones could fly around without disturbing the birds’ natural activities, while the pelicans in their nests were counted by first using the drone to map out their entire nest box, before making another flight to record images of the nests.

After that, the images were then fed into the smart software on the computer, which detected and counted the birds accurately.

And it went a long way into winning over doubters too.

“This demonstrates once again that the niches for the use of drones in conservation, biodiversity preservation and natural heritage management are enormous,” SFL said. “Indeed, as soon as the team arrived on site, the officers did not hesitate to mention the importance of SFL’s participation in the international count of waterbirds in order to strengthen the capacity to analyse data collected by drone.

“Until now, there was no artificial intelligence tool to identify birds. On the other hand, the usual counting methods allow more for the estimation of species than their exact account.”

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