Both species of orangutan are found only in the tropical forests of Indonesia and Malaysia. Unfortunately, rampant habitat destruction, fueled by a surging demand for palm oil, has destroyed 90% of orangutan habitat in the past 20 years.
So it may come as a surprise that a recent population survey of orangutans on Sumatra found over twice as many apes as expected.
A bigger Orangutan population might not mean recovery
Researchers now estimate that as many as 14,600 orangutans live on the island of Sumatra, compared to the estimate of 6,600 apes back in 2008.
Scientists caution against misinterpreting the new results as evidence of an orangutan recovery. According to the study, the new population estimate reflects a change in research methods, not actual orangutan abundance.
For researchers on Sumatra, drones presented an exciting opportunity to improve the accuracy of orangutan population monitoring.
Conservation drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are not designed to carry a military payload or deliver Amazon Prime packages. Instead, they serve as ecological monitoring tools and are equipped with GPS units, autopilot software, and high definition cameras.
Using free open-source software, researchers programed the drones to fly set transects over the forest to snap pictures of orangutan nests.
Aside from take off, the drones are completely autonomous: they automatically fly between the waypoints set by researchers, playing out a giant game of connect the dots over the forest canopy.