Twitter does not lack for speed, and drone footage of a grizzly bear cub repeatedly trying to climb a steep, snow-covered mountainside to stay with its mother went from being the new Internet meme for stick-with-it-ness to horrifying faster than you can say “RT with comment.”
Wildlife biologists especially were outraged. The very presence of the drone appeared to have spooked the mother and cub into fleeing, and the cub nearly plunged to what could have been its death. “A number of my colleagues who are bear biologists agree it was a case of harassment with the drone,” says Tanya Pulfer, conservation science manager with Ontario Nature.
Here’s the video in question:
Video courtesy of YouTube/Med Vlogs
People and wildlife aren’t always a good mix: witness a tragic encounter in August between residents in Coldwater, Ont., and a young moose that had wandered into their community. After chasing and yelling at the moose, the animal collapsed and died from stress. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, might seem a better way to get personal with nature because no humans have to be in the picture. But as drones become more popular with hobbyists, filmmakers, and wildlife biologists, we’ve been waking up to their potential for messing with the minds of animals. After all, animals do tend to notice weird things, and their response might not be in their own best interest.
“It’s great we have this new technology, and we can do interesting things with it, but we need to ask ourselves if we should be doing them,” says Pulfer. “Using a drone can reduce the risk for you with wildlife, but it doesn’t reduce the risk to wildlife, in changing their behaviour.” People need to be aware of the effect they can have on vulnerable animals, as in the case of a mother and an offspring. Also, drones can spook animals that have airborne predators.
An article in Current Biology in 2016 proposed a code of ethics for the use of UAVs in wildlife studies, warning that “this new technology could also have undesirable and unforeseen impacts on wildlife, the risks of which we currently have little understanding.”
The authors reviewed their concerns in an article worth reading, at IFL Science, as they figured drone harassment of wildlife, however inadvertent, was going to become an issue with UAV hobbyists.
Pulfer says the use of drones around wild animals comes down to common sense and the principle of “do no harm.” If you’re operating a drone, you need to think of yourself being in the animal’s presence as much as the drone is. If you shouldn’t be disturbing an animal in person, the drone shouldn’t be doing it for you.