Broad Coalition Develops Drones to Protect Critically Endangered New Zealand Dolphins

Image: Oregon State University/Flickr

by Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

A coalition of scientists, environmentalists, fishers, and the New Zealand Government has developed a special drone to monitor and protect one of New Zealand’s most endangered aquatic mammals. There are just 63 Māui dolphins remaining off the west coast of New Zealand, and experts hope that this new technology can give them critical insight that can help the government craft life-saving policies. WWF-New Zealand CEO Livia Esterhazy says it’s unprecedented to have such a diverse coalition pursuing one mission, “We may all sit in different camps, but this data will move us forward. It’s incredibly exciting.”

Why This Matters: The world is facing a biodiversity crisis, and New Zealand is no exception. According to the Convention on Biological Diversity, of the country’s approximately 80,000 native species, 799 are considered threatened, and 2,741 are at risk. About 80% of the country’s indigenous species are aquatic, but only about 0.5% of its waters are in “no-take” reserves. Experts say that healthy oceans and fisheries will be a crucial tool in the fight against climate change and have urged countries to protect 30% of all lands and waters by 2030. But New Zealand will have to act fast to bring its marine protection up to speed in the next ten years.

Dangerous Waters: The population of Māui dolphins declined rapidly in the 1970s due to the increased use of gillnets in shallower waters. By the 1980s, just a few hundred were left. 

And yet, these creatures face another, much weirder threat: cat poop. Toxoplasmosis, a parasite that reproduces in the cat’s digestive tract, is “virtually indestructible,” said University of Auckland marine scientist Rochelle Constantine. “Once it gets into our waterways, it’s ingested by fish, which in turn is eaten by dolphins. From there, it’s said to cause organ failure, and it attacks the brain.” But eliminating the wild cat population in New Zealand isn’t a very popular policy, but this new technology could offer a solution.


Deep Blue: Non-profit organization MĀUI63 began initial testing of the drone in 2019 and found that the drone could identify Māui dolphins with 90% accuracy from an altitude of 393 feet. The drone can then follow and film a dolphin for up to six hours. Experts hope that the footage will identify critical areas where dolphins encounter water runoff containing toxoplasmosis. “This data could, if used appropriately, help halt the decline towards extinction for the Māui dolphin, and suppose we start using it for other threatened marine animals,” said Constantine. “It could be a complete game-changer for conservation.”

Previously, trained observers would set out in planes once per year to observe and report on dolphin activity, but these drones can be sent out year-round and at a lower cost. “Only 7 percent of New Zealand is land, the rest is sea, and yet we’ve been under-equipped to study the ocean. There’s only so much money to go around,” said Constantine. Now, the money is flowing to the project. The New Zealand government has invested in the development and deployment of the drones, as has the nation’s largest seafood company, Sanford. The company says that it’s not in it for commercial gain. “We want to do better, to work in a sustainable way, and to use the latest technology. It’s a win-win,” said COO Clement Chia. 

Up Next

Record-breaking Year for Manatee Deaths

Record-breaking Year for Manatee Deaths

By Ashira Morris, ODP Staff Writer Almost 1,000 of Florida’s manatees have died as of Oct.1 this year, setting a tragic record for the most deaths in a year, with two months left to go. Deaths were largely caused by starvation — the predator-less sea cows typically spend hours a day eating seagrass, but declining […]

Continue Reading 357 words
One Cool Thing: Where’s Walrus?

One Cool Thing: Where’s Walrus?

Do you have a good eye? Are you surprisingly good at Where’s Waldo and like Walruses? If so, we have great opportunity for you! The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) is seeking volunteers to help count Atlantic walruses…from space.   Sea ice is retreating fast as global temperatures rise, forcing walruses to crowd on smaller floes […]

Continue Reading 174 words
China Pledges $230 Million to Protect Biodiversity

China Pledges $230 Million to Protect Biodiversity

By Natasha Lasky, ODP Staff Writer At a UN conference in Kunming, China, President Xi Jinping set aside $230 million to form a fund that preserves biodiversity in developing countries. This announcement was made at the UN Convention on Biological Diversity talks (COP15) which are dedicated to preserving delicate ecosystems and preventing plants and animals […]

Continue Reading 315 words

Want the planet in your inbox?

Subscribe to the email that top lawmakers, renowned scientists, and thousands of concerned citizens turn to each morning for the latest environmental news and analysis.