Turtle population counted by drone

Posted on 2020-06-30 13:30:09


It is with absolute clarity and a sense of great privilege that I recall sitting on a beach in Kosi Bay through starlit nights, watching great turtles come ashore, dig their perfect nests at the foot of the dunes, lay their eggs, and carefully disguise the sites before tiredly making their way back to the ocean. They come to the beaches where they themselves had emerged from eggs many years before.

Our group was led by Jeff Gaisford, then a senior ranger of the Natal Parks Board, now Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife. Our group included two young Jacques Cousteau team divers, a German photographer, and Jeff’s mother, Joan, who was a leader in the Western Sufi movement in our country, and also my special friend. I have just finished a book that includes elements of that experience, which was enhanced when Joan and I accidentally met up with a group of friendly fish smugglers who had been fishing illegally near the river mouth.

I always eagerly read The Smithsonian magazine online, and a recent illustrated article tells of the turtles that come to nest on the beaches of Raine Island at the northern edge of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Using drones, the Raine Island Recovery Project provides photographs of an estimated 64,000 turtles gathering off the turtles’ largest single breeding ground before coming ashore to lay their eggs.

The Recovery Project has long struggled to obtain an accurate count of the turtles and now mark the shells of turtles that have already laid their eggs with splotches of non-toxic white paint so that they are not counted more than once.

Of great concern is that the death rate of turtles is increasing. Owing to climate change, rising sea levels often flood nesting beaches, destroying eggs that would normally develop into baby turtles. In addition, a considerable number of adult turtles die after they have been flopped over after falling off the island’s mini-cliffs. Fencing is being erected to keep adult turtles away from areas that are dangerous to them, and sand is being added to beaches to raise their level above the encroaching tide.

Andrew Dunstan, the head researcher of the Queensland Department of Environment and Science, has said: “In the future, we will be able to automate these counts from video footage, using artificial intelligence – so that the computer does the counting for us.”

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