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In a first, a drone helps nab illegal logger in Peru

© Widber Flores Villacorta

Above: Jimmy Pinedo of Conservation International Peru operates a drone.

On Nov. 17 of last year, a man was caught illegally cutting down trees in Peru’s Alto Mayo Protected Forest.

Sadly, this was not out of the ordinary: Despite the area’s protected status, illegal farming and logging still occur in this swath of forest in the Amazon River basin, and people are routinely caught and fined.

What was out of the ordinary about this case: The culprit was caught by a drone.

That same week in November, Jimmy Pinedo of Conservation International Peru had been training a group of park rangers from Peru’s national protected-area agency (known by its acronym in Spanish, SERNANP) to use drones as a forest monitoring tool. The eyes in the sky aim to provide a new weapon in the fight to stop illegal logging in the Alto Mayo Protected Forest, a swath of dense rainforest twice the size of New York City.

Before the training, community members living in the Alto Mayo reported a suspiciously large amount of timber being collected on a property within the protected forest. A SERNANP ranger attempted to investigate the property, but it was located on the opposite bank of the wide and aggressive Mayo River — an impossible trip to make in the limited time he had.

Instead, he attended the drone workshop — with the property’s coordinates in hand.

Drones are an increasingly popular tool for conservationists. The drones can capture detailed high-resolution images of objects on the ground, as well as human activities that threaten nature, such as illegal logging, mining and poaching. These images spare rangers from long-distance hikes or travel to potentially dangerous areas.

The drones’ popularity is growing as the technology improves, says Max Wright, remote sensing and spatial modeling analyst at Conservation International. “It’s staggering how quickly drone technology is advancing,” he said. “The drones that we are using today have much greater range and data-collection capabilities than even what was available a few years ago.”

This range proved useful in the case of the illegal logger in Peru.

Flying to the scene

At the drone workshop in Alto Mayo, park ranger Onmer Cenepo surveyed the property from a launch site about 2 kilometers (roughly 1.2 miles) upstream, using a Phantom 4 DJI quadcopter, a camera-equipped drone capable of high speeds and long flights.

Hovering 100 meters (328 feet) above the ground, the drone showed the rangers a large quantity of wood piled up on the other side of the Mayo River. Armed with this evidence, Frank Ramirez, the Alto Mayo indigenous community’s chief and coordinator of the Control and Monitoring department in the Alto Mayo Protected Forest, called authorities to take action.

Aerial photo of the illegal logging, pictured above, captured by a drone. (© Conservation International Peru)

It turns out the offender had a permit to harvest roughly 57 cubic meters (2,000 cubic feet) of land, about the size of two school buses. Instead, he was harvesting an area three times that size — which was illegal. According to Ramirez, the logger received a written citation and will be fined for the illegal timber extraction by the regional environmental authority.

The hope is that this incident, and others like it, will discourage other farmers from illegal logging and developing protected land. Conservation International and partners are ramping up efforts to train rangers to patrol and monitor using drones. There is a clear need: Though deforestation in the Peruvian Amazon in 2017 was down 13 percent from 2016, and Peru declared a new national park in early 2018, incidents like the one in November elicit concern from conservationists for the future of Peru’s forests — and hope that drones can improve protection and enforcement.

“In the future, I could see small teams of rangers going out into the protected area to systematically map the forests at fine resolution or using drone imagery to verify deforestation events in remote — or even dangerous — areas,” Wright said.

In the past two years, Conservation International has trained 10 SERNANP rangers and three partners from ECOAN (Asociación de Ecosistemas Andinos), a Peruvian organization that aims to reduce deforestation. The local indigenous community has also been trained to operate drones. Conservation International is also piloting acoustic sensors that capture the sound of chainsaws and sends the coordinates to the ranger’s office, which can then send a drone to investigate.

As drones continue to get smaller and more powerful, they will play an increasingly important role — and offer hope for protecting Peru’s forests.

Cassandra Kane is the communications manager for Conservation International’s Conservation Finance Division.

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