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High hopes: drones join fight to save New Zealand’s rarest dolphin

Eleanor de Jong in Queenstown
·3-min read
<span>Photograph: Nature Picture Library/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Nature Picture Library/Alamy

The lives of New Zealand’s smallest and most endangered dolphins will soon become less elusive as drones take to the skies to study their location, habits and numbers.

Māui dolphins are a subspecies of the Hector’s dolphin and are one of the rarest dolphins in the world, living in a small stretch of ocean off the west coast of New Zealand’s North Island.

The dolphins, endemic to the country, are listed as “nationally critical” by the Department of Conservation – the highest threat level – and face constant danger from fishing operations, diseases, oil and gas exploration, boat strike, mining, tourism, and noise pollution.

Related: Rescuers race to save dozens of stranded pilot whales in New Zealand

Oceans and fisheries minister David Parker said current estimates suggest that only 63 adult Māui dolphins remain, so it’s critical that every effort is made to save them from extinction.

A 2019 Colmar Brunton poll found 81% of New Zealanders believed the government needed to act immediately to save Māui and Hector’s dolphins and halt further population decline.

“We are committed to protecting this treasure,” Parker said.

MAUI63, a non-profit organisation, is developing a drone capable of finding and tracking Māui dolphins in the wild, and providing “unparalleled” data at a fraction of the cost of more traditional, generally human, methods.

Initial testing of the drone shows the AI technology can distinguish Māui dolphins from other species with over 90% accuracy.

Fitted with a 50x optical zoom camera, the drone can fly and film for up to six hours, and hovers at an altitude of more than 100m above the sea, with the intention of not disturbing the animals in their natural habitat.

“This technology has the potential to compile detailed data on the habitats, population size and distribution and behaviour of the dolphins, along with many other types of marine species such as other dolphins, seabirds, and whales,” Parker said.

The year-long project will cost half a million dollars and see the government partner with the World Wildlife Fund New Zealand and MAUI163.

Once collected the data will be made publicly available and also help inform decisions by major seafood companies such as Moana New Zealand and Sanford, which are exploring how to use the information collected by the drone to reduce the risk to Māui and Hector’s dolphins.

As well as working to save threatened species in New Zealand, the potential of drones is also being tested in remote, inaccessible wilderness areas to hunt out pests such as stoats, rats and possums.

Related: Dolphins have similar personality traits to humans, study finds

The Department of Conservation is trialling seven metres long drones that look like mini-helicopters to drop baits and poison and wipe out pests in areas that humans simply can’t access due to steep cliffs, deep ravines and impenetrable vegetation.

Brent Beaven, head of the Predator Free 2050 programme at DoC, said more than 1 million hectares of land was being targeted for pest eradication “so there’s plenty of New Zealand” for the drones to deal with.

“We are in a changing world, we can use helicopters for a lot of stuff, but our carbon footprint needs to track towards zero, we need to be looking at other options,” Beaven said. “My dream is that one day we’ll have artificial intelligence devices that will detect the presence of a pest somewhere that will automatically link to a messaging service that will send a drone out – wouldn’t that be great?”