New methods of beach protection: Night vision drones, conservation dogs

Background

Conservative beach patrolling during the turtle nesting times is the first means in providing direct protection to sea turtles threatened by poaching activity. However, this method is expensive in terms of human, financial, and logistical resources, especially if dense monitoring is required. Further, if not supported by accompanying measures, reduction of monitoring efforts would inevitably lead to a rebound of poaching activities, which is especially a big danger if the measures are financed and carried out by NGOs rather than by governmental authorities. Therefore, there is a need for alternative but similarly effective measures that are cheaper, can contribute to significantly reduce efforts for conventional beach patrolling in the future, and which are more likely to be adopted by the local governments. Together with the local nature agencies and the police, Turtle Foundation created a surveillance task force for sea turtle protection with alternative techniques. This involves a new anti-poaching strategy aiming to overcome the so far prevention oriented method of keeping poachers away from the beaches just by the presence of patrols, to be replaced by a three step approach of detection, intervention, and prosecution of poaching activity. The surveillance task force is explicitly designed not only to protect the beaches that are conventionally patrolled by Turtle Foundation but all beaches of Boa Vista that suffer high risk of poaching activity, especially the beaches in the north and east of the island.

Night vision drones

The drone project team started its activity in August 2018 until end of the season and continued in the nesting season 2019. A professional drone (DJI Inspire 1 V2.0), a thermal night vision camera (Zenmuse XT 640) and supporting equipment was purchased. Operations were focused on around 30 km of high-risk beaches in the east and north of Boavista. About 70 night missions and about 400 single drone flights per nesting season were carried out. Initially, about half of the missions were accompanied by policemen who were ready to intervene and arrest perpetrators in case poaching activity was detected. However, in 2019 a strategy was added involving special ranger patrols in the field during drone operations, connected to the drone operators by radio. While no poachers were encountered or arrested during drone missions, the number of recorded poaching incidents dropped from 235 still in 2017 to 70 in 2018 and further to 19 in 2019. We attribute this to the combined effect of the new law increasing the local protection status of sea turtles and the publicly known, but unpredictable presence of the drone team on the beaches, accompanied by local police. The great efforts in awareness, educational and development programs in the communities and the increasing participation of local drivers in the turtle watching initiatives might have contributed as well. A short communication about the drone project was published by end of 2018 (Reischig et al., African Sea Turtle Newsletter 2018 10: 9–13; Download)

Conservation dogs

The conservation dog project began in the autumn of 2017 with the purchase of two Labrador puppies, a pair of siblings from a working line of this breed. We named the two dogs – a male and a female – in reference to the scientific names of the two species of turtles found mainly in Cape Verde: Karetta (Caretta caretta, the loggerhead turtle) and Kelo (Chelonia mydas, the green turtle). The Labrador siblings then received their basic training from renowned dog trainer Marlene Zähner in Switzerland. In 2018, two of our Cape Verdean rangers also attended dog handler training in Switzerland, and in June 2019, Karetta and Kelo came to Boa Vista. Dogs and handlers began their service and were initially trained to detect remains of poached turtles on beaches, which will later be expanded to detect turtle meat, for example, at airports, ports, and on boats. In addition, we recognized that poachers often leave items such as scraps of cloth and rope at the scene to which their scent adheres, and which the dogs could use to pick up and track their scent. Therefore, for 2020, we had planned to train this area of operation, known as mantrailing, as well. Unfortunately, due to the Corona pandemic and the associated travel restrictions, this was not possible. In the meantime, the dogs were used for area-wide detection of turtle carcasses from the previous season on the beaches and in their hinterlands to further narrow down the poaching hotspots and detect previously unknown poaching activities. We experienced another setback when Karetta suffered a complicated injury to her hind leg during a walk on the beach in the spring of 2020 and had to be brought back to Switzerland for further treatment. Unfortunately, Karetta is permanently impaired by this accident and can no longer be used as a working dog. She now lives with Marlene Zähner in Switzerland. Recently we were able to buy a young female dog on Boa Vista who shows good potential to become Karetta’s successor. From 2021 we want to continue the conservation dog project with the German dog trainer Marcel Meierhofer, who is specialized in mantrailing.

Project location

Overview

  • Start of project: 2017

  • Species in focus: loggerhead sea turtle

  • Location: Boa Vista, Cape Verde

We would like to thank the following organisations, among others, for supporting the project:

Logo BIOPAMA

PPI Logo