Drones to count musk oxen in eastern Greenland | Polarjournal
Stand up to be counted. Photo: Michael Wenger

Jameson Land, in north-eastern Greenland, is about as remote as it gets. That is generally good news for the animals that live there. For the biologists who want to now how warming temperatures are affecting the region’s population of musk oxen, it is something of a drawback, however. Now, though, help could be on the way. A pilot programme using drones to assist in wildlife population surveys that is set to take place next year could make it a little faster and less expensive to count animals in the Arctic and in remote places everywhere.

The last time Jameson Land’s musk oxen were counted, there were 1,761 of them. That, though was more than 20 years ago. The high cost of conducting surveys using either helicopters or fixed-wing aircraft makes keeping closer track of how they are doing cost prohibitive, and has left biologists uncertain of the status of the population today. Greenland is home to perhaps a quarter of the world’s musk oxen, so finding out what is happening to populations there could tell us a lot about how they are holding up overall.

With no surveys planned anytime soon, getting an updated picture of the situation was looking unlikely. That was before a the formation of a partnership between WWF, a conservancy, and Robotto, a maker of software for drones, that until now has mostly involved itself with developing fire-detection and search-and-rescue software.

Photo: Urs Stoller

Jameson Land, apart from its population of musk oxen and the length of time that has passed since they were counted, makes a good choice for the survey, since the biologists and the drones will be able to enlist the help of hunters from the town of Ittoqqortoormiit (pop 345) to tell them where they should go looking for musk oxen.

Successfully deploying drones for wildlife monitoring in Jameson Land — and working with the people of Ittoqqortoormiit — will make it easier for biologists to keep tabs on wildlife in other remote areas in the Arctic and elsewhere, reckons Bo Øksnebjerg, the secretary-general of WWF’s Danish chapter. “In the long run, this can make it more efficient, cheaper and far more sustainable to count the world’s many species.” The Arctic: if they can make it there, they can make it practically anywhere.

Kevin McGwin, PolarJournal

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