Drone photography raises concern for Sri Lanka’s flamingo flock

  • The annual migration of a flock of thousands of flamingos to the Mannar wetland in northern Sri Lanka attracts crowds of photographers, with a growing number now using drones to photograph the birds from above.
  • Environmental activists and authorities have warned against this trend, saying the presence of drones disturbs the birds and could drive them away from Mannar altogether.
  • Experts point to a worrying precedent: in the 1990s, the Bundala wetland in the south of the country was pumped out of fresh water as part of an irrigation programme, killing the shrimp and plankton that fed the flamingos. The flamingos quickly abandoned the wetland.
  • In Mannar, an area impoverished by decades of civil war, flamingos are a key tourist attraction that should be preserved to help improve local livelihoods, experts say.

MANNAR, Sri Lanka – With brushstroke-like reddish-pink spots on its wings, legs and large, down-curved beak, the flamingo is a beautiful bird to watch, especially in flight as part of a bird’s-eye view. a large herd.

One such flock, numbering around 5,000 flamingos (Phoenicopterus roseus), stops at Mannar wetland, a Ramsar site, in northern Sri Lanka last January. Annual visitors drew large crowds, many of whom were equipped with pro-grade cameras and lenses, and others carried smartphones while trying to get up close to the birds.

Then there were those, a small but growing group, who were bringing drones. Flying them just above the flock of flamingos in search of scenic aerial photos, they included professional and amateur photographers. For conservationists, however, this emerging trend could pose a serious threat to flamingos in particular, and to wildlife in general.

The annual migration of flamingos attracts professional photographers and wildlife enthusiasts to the Mannar Wetland. Image courtesy of Athula Dissanayake.

Drone anxiety

“When these drones fly a few feet above the flamingos with the roar of the rotors, the birds often treat the noise like an aerial predator and take off with great anxiety,” said Sampath Seneviratne from the University of Colombo, which studies migratory birds in the region.

If these disturbances continue, he said, the birds could move to areas farther from the wetland, or perhaps avoid the site altogether.

Drones have long been used for scientific purposes, and in recent years advances in technology have meant that they have become more compact while still managing to fly higher, faster, farther and for longer. During this time there have been many research on the impact of low-flying drones on birds, including the risk of mid-air collisions and disturbance to nesting or feeding birds. For the migrating flamingos of Mannar, the main threat perceived by conservationists is a disruption of their foraging activity.

Even the slightest disturbance can scare flamingos away. As large birds, they expend a lot of energy each time they take off and land. Image courtesy of Dev Mukund.

“We call on the competent authorities, and on all those drone pilots who have a conscience, to immediately stop this destructive practice,” said Spencer ManapillaiPresident of the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society (WNPS), Sri Lanka’s oldest conservation organization, which has launched a campaign to prevent drone photography from becoming harmful to various species. The main concern is flamingos, but drones can also disturb other birds, Manuapillai said.

In Sri Lanka, the use of a drone equipped with a camera requires the approval of the Civil Aviation Authority of Sri Lanka. It’s illegal to fly drones in sensitive areas, so authorities are deploying more wildlife officers to places where flamingos abound, said Chandana Sooriyabandarageneral manager of the Wildlife Conservation Department (DWC). The police and navy are also helping to control crowds, Sooriyabandara told Mongabay.

Although recreational use of drones can cause unnecessary disruption, the technology is a useful tool for wildlife research, said Chandima Fernandoecologist at the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society (SLWCS). Fernando uses drones for various wildlife studies for his graduate studies in New Zealand and is experimenting with the use of drones to mitigate human-elephant conflict, one of the biggest environmental issues in Sri Lanka.

“Like any other technical tool, the impact of the drone depends on the operator,” Fernando told Mongabay. “Sri Lanka needs guidelines and their strict application in wildlife surveys and recreational flying.”

There must also be education on the careful use of drones, given that it is still a relatively new tool, he added.

About 70% of the Mannar flamingo flock is made up of juvenile birds still developing their colorful plumage. Image courtesy of Upul Rodrigo.

Benefit for the community

Mannar, usually a destination for wildlife enthusiasts, has now become a center of attraction thanks to the flock of flamingos. Most hotels have reported an increase in bookings, and locals working as guides have also been able to cash in during this time.

“Flamingo is a treasure for the Mannar region, so we don’t want to hunt them because of the irresponsible actions of a few,” said Marynathan Edisona naturalist based in Mannar who guides visitors on flamingo viewing tours.

Rich in biodiversity, Mannar was for decades cut off from the rest of Sri Lanka, and the world, by the civil war that lasted from 1983 to 2009. It is only in recent years that the local community, impoverished by the war , began to benefit from their unique environment.

Seneviratne said they should have the opportunity to share the wealth generated by the natural resources of the wetland. But he added that irresponsible drone activity undermines that opportunity by threatening to chase flamingos, the biggest attraction there, away from the wetland.

Seneviratne, who conducts research on migratory birds using GPS satellite beacons, said the flamingos that stop over at Mannar come from India’s Gujarat region. In November 2019At least 2,000 flamingos have been found dead in India, believed to be part of the flock that makes the annual trip to Sri Lanka, Seneviratne told Mongabay. Today, around 70% of Mannar flamingos are juvenile birds, which is a good sign, Seneviratne said, as it indicates the flock has largely rebounded over the past two years.

Wasting energy fleeing a disturbance can be dangerous for migratory flamingos, which must strengthen themselves between long flights. Image courtesy of Mevan Piyasena.

If Mannar’s flamingos do eventually abandon the site, it won’t be the first time a key wetland in Sri Lanka has lost its flamingos, Seneviratne said. In the 1990s, an irrigation project diverted fresh water to the Bundala wetlands to the south, Sri Lanka’s first Ramsar site. Bundala has long been home to flamingos, which are filter feeders, eating small shrimp and plankton which they pick up with their large beaks. But with the influx of fresh water, the salt-dependent shrimp and plankton disappeared, and with them, the flamingos.

Bundala, now a freshwater lagoon, serves as a warning about the importance of not upsetting nature’s delicate balance, Seneviratne said. And that, he added, also applies to photographers, who, like everyone else, must learn to responsibly enjoy the wonders of nature.

Banner image of the flock of flamingos at the Mannar wetland in Sri Lanka. The migratory flock this year numbers more than 5,000 birds. Image courtesy of Upul Rodrigo.

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