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Estimating the population size of migrating Tibetan antelopes Pantholops hodgsonii with unmanned aerial vehicles

  • Jianbo Hu (a1), Xiaomin Wu (a2) and Mingxing Dai (a1)

Data on the distribution and population size of the Near Threatened Tibetan antelope Pantholops hodgsonii are necessary to protect this species. Ground-based count surveys are usually carried out from a long distance to avoid disturbing the sensitive animals, and on calving grounds or along migration routes where they are seasonally concentrated. This can result in underestimation of population sizes if terrain features obstruct the view and high concentrations of animals make estimating numbers difficult. Here we test the efficacy of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for gathering population data for the Tibetan antelope. We conducted the study south of a known calving ground, at the foot of Sewu Snow Mountain, in the Chang Tang National Nature Reserve, China. The UAV did not appear to disturb the animals and resulted in more accurate counts than ground-based observations. A total of 23,063 Tibetan antelopes were identified in twelve orthoimages derived from c. 4,000 aerial photographs. In the first flight area 7,671 females and 4,353 calves were identified (proportion of calves: 36.2%). In the second flight area 7,989 females and 3,050 calves were identified (proportion of calves: 27.6%). Two flights over the same area revealed the direction and speed of moving Tibetan antelope groups. Image resolution, which can be controlled with flight planning, was an important factor in determining the animals’ visibility in the photos. We found that UAV-based surveys outperformed ground-based surveys, and that larger UAVs are preferable for this application.

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