Drones for Conservation with Kike Calvo I Using Drones to Save the Planet

Enabling Conservation through Drones and Photography

I have always been marveled by how technology, if used properly, can positively transform our existence and the places we live in. 

Its been five years since I wrote the Drones for Conservation, a book that National Geographic Conservation Fellow Thomas Lovejoy described as a first. We were in the infancy of using drones for aiding conservation back then. 

I still remember my first drone flights in very remote areas of the world, finding the opposition from very opinionated naturalists. But internally, I knew drone technology was here to stay. And like a hammer, they can be used to build or to destroy.  As I felt we were at a time when the pressure on nature and biological diversity was unprecedented, I felt I needed to focus on the potential positive outcomes of using this technology for conservation. 

Moving forward five years, the pressure on nature and biodiversity has continued its acceleration. I still believe that careful ground field research is mandatory, but the ability of drones to soar over the conservation priority at hand will continue empowering conservation science.

I have spent my career documenting wildlife and unique environments around the world, mostly using visuals to convey messages. Drones have become a constant in my camera bag. In this presentation, I will be sharing some of the lessons learned along the way. But not only my lessons, but those from those whom I crossed paths with.


When we look at a full moon, we think of poems and tranquility. But it is under the silver light, that most poaching happens around the world. Asia. Who doesn’t love its mysterious feel and its cultural nuances? But like Africa, poaching has had a big negative impact. The numbers are horrific. WWF talks about 20,000 African elephants being killed by poachers each year. And when it comes to Rhinos, the poaching increased 9,000% between 2007 and 2014. Illegal Wildlife Trade is the fourth biggest illegal trade in the world.

I believe it was listening to Dr. Lian Pin Koh the first time I was able to connect the dots. This technology could of course be used in forest fire protection, but also, become a major tool in Wildlife Traffic and Poaching Detection. Today, drones with anti-poaching technology are assisting Park Rangers across the globe, saving the lives of Elephants, Tigers, and Gorillas. 

If you were a poacher, the darkness that reigns over nature once the sun goes down would probably be your favorite time. But thanks to infrared and thermal imaging, relatively inexpensive drone equipment can soar over hundreds of acres, providing live video. So how does it all work? Explained in a simple manner, drones help with the surveillance work, and rangers are positioned where they can be deployed quickly if needed. Infrared and Thermal vision cameras installed on the drones help spot the poachers. 

Initially, many of us think of the land ecosystems when it comes to wildlife monitoring. But think again! Drone technology can play an active role in vessel monitoring, such as whaling ships. 

Since the time I researched my book Drones for Conservation, I have seen drone technology being used in many activities beyond anti-poaching. Let me list a few examples:

Animal Tracking (using radio tracker collars and triangulation); Nest Surveys; Species Identification; Camera trap Image Retrieval; Animal Counting; Migrating tracking; Habitat Management; and Perimeter Assessment. 

There are so many uses, that I could extent forever talking about each one. But I feel it will be much more valuable if I shared some of the lessons and challenges that experts have accumulated in their careers.

Lessons from Australia:

Jarrod Hodgson, from Monash University, was working on a Bird´s Eye View of Conservation Monitoring in North Western Australia when I interviewed him. 

1. Obtaining aerial imagery allows unlimited retrospective analysis, which is not possible with ground counts.

2. Population monitoring using drones has the potential to cause less disturbance and be more economical than ground counting, especially in remote environments where site time or traditional techniques are costly (e.g. the cost of a standby charter vessel or the charter of an airplane for aerial surveys). In some 
circumstances, drones are also more time effective.

But he pointed that: Aerial counts of seabirds made from images captured by a drone are less varied than those completed by on-ground counters. 

Lessons from Haiti:

Steve Schill, Senior Scientist at the Caribbean Program of The Nature Conservancy was working on Mapping the Three Bays National Park in Haiti. 

“The use of drones has great potential for understanding the dynamics of the coastal zone,” said Schill. “It’s very helpful when interpreting the satellite imagery and validating the derived classification.”

Lessons from Namibia:

When I met Sonja Betschart from Drone Adventures, she was working in a mapping project in the Kalahari Desert and the Namib Desert. She confirmed what I have been telling my photography students all over the world. Sounds silly, but it does make a difference. Take a big supply of batteries and spare parts as there is not much electricity to load the batteries,¨said Sonja.  ¨You will need spare parts to repair the drones and material suffering from the harsh environment.¨

Lessons from Antarctica:
Douglas J. Krause – NOAA Fisheries, Antarctic Ecosystem Research Division and Scripps Institution of Oceanography was working on a project with Leopard Seals in Livingstone Island in Antarctica. The main goal was to use aerial photogrammetry to estimate leopard seal mass and nutritive condition without the need to capture them.  A simple yet powerful tip from our conversations is  to remember when working in remote locations, carry a system that every piece of technology and support necessary to conduct a full day of field operations can be easily carried by a single person through rough terrain.

Lessons from the Cook Islands:

Nan Daeschler Hauser (Director of the Center for Cetacean Research and Conservation), was using Drones to Better Understand Humpback Behavior, their Social Interactions and their Migration Patterns reminded me of how patience is a virtue when it comes to using drones for conservation. Many hands are needed, in most cases, to bring projects to a good end. 

And all this brings me to a topic I would like to address in this presentation. The introduction of new technologies in remote communities. I have spent years reflecting on how tools (drones in this case) that can solve problems. But on the other hand, can they produce alterations in the cultures we visit while working on projects?

“You state very well the conundrum,” said Harvard University Archaeology Program Director Richard H. Meadow. “Yet, all remote communities are in touch to some degree with other communities, and thus there exists – and always has – the potential for the transfer of information and ways of doing things that are exogenous. No community is without a history of getting where it is today. And communities are made up of individuals, who are likely to have varying ideas about change and varying motives for having those ideas. Change is inevitable and change will always have unforeseen consequences. And if any one of us thinks that he or she has the right answer about the “goodness” or “badness” of change, or can predict how change will actually take place, he or she is deluded.”

I will wrap up this section with a quote from Dr. Robert Homsher, College Fellow, Archaeology of Israel and the Bible at Harvard University “I think the fundamental aspect of mitigating revolutionary change is knowing how best to integrate technologies into the existing system of cultural beliefs and social organization without initiating constitutive change.”

For me, Drones are Conservation enablers. As soon as my hands got a hold of the drone technology in the early days of the industry, my mind started racing with the thought of capturing aerial images beyond the expected categories of nature, landscapes, and real state. I saw the potential to create aerial images that convey pure, raw beauty. I wanted to produce art. In a world of digital tools, drones will very soon become a brush, a palette and why not, drones may become actors of our very own creations. Beautiful artworks are starting to emerge around the world.

And when you combine art, technology and conservation in people´s hearts,  magic happens.  If there is a thought I would love to bring into the conversation is that data is obviously needed. 

When I recognized my ability to create emotional connections with my readers, reaching audiences from all over the world, is when I felt I could excel in my conservation efforts.  After working on multiple projects that involved the use of quadcopters and other UAVs in remote locations (Costa Rica, Colombia, Panama or Falklands), my mind started looking into the notion of capability development, or what we commonly refer to as knowledge transfer.

With a focus on polar regions, tropical regions, remote locations, adventure travel, and marine ecosystems, we decided to focus on drone and storytelling intensive workshops to help indigenous and remote communities become part of the digital dialog and be able to share their stories and help solve or mitigate some of their problems. As strange as this may sound, in a parallel manner with the use of drones, I jumpstarted the project The Adventures of Pili to inspire kids to aspire, for which I receive a Safina Center Fellowship in 2020 and 2021.  Our mission at The Adventures of Pili is to create books and other educational products that increase children’s awareness of global environmental issues and foster multi-lingual literacy. We have donated thousands of bilingual books in remote communities. 

And I will end with my personal lessons:

–       It is key to cultivate the right networks and relationships

–       We don’t work on, we work with. This is a key.

–       Remember all communities are different. They have their own specific characteristics with significant variation.

–       Remember to involve all the community members, and not only in the implementation, but also when you do the planning. Families are normally strong networks in this kind of community.

–       Take advantage of preexisting networks within the community, such as activities and social events.

–       Don’t underestimate the indigenous knowledge, that local knowledge that is unique to a culture or society such as ‘local knowledge’, ‘folk knowledge’30, ‘people’s knowledge, ‘traditional wisdom’ or ‘traditional science’. This knowledge is passed from generation to generation. So try to identify opportunities for integrating relevant aspects of indigenous knowledge and approaches to teaching and learning. 

And one last thing, no matter what you do in life, Never Stop Dreaming!