Photograph by Roy Toft, Nat Geo Image Collection
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A mother brown bear and her cubs like those that were recently filmed in Russia in a controversial drone video that has gone viral.
Photograph by Roy Toft, Nat Geo Image Collection

Viral bear video shows dark side of filming animals with drones

As drones become smaller and cheaper, experts urge people to use caution when flying near wild animals like this brown bear and her cub.

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.

That was the angle many news outlets took this week with a viral video of a brown bear mother and cub. Shot by Dmitry Kedrov this summer with a drone on the coast of Russia’s Sea of Okhotsk, the video shows a baby bear repeatedly climbing up and falling down a treacherous, snowy slope.

And though the video has a happy ending—the cub makes it to the top, and the duo walk off into the wilderness—numerous scientists have expressed concerns on social media about the way the video was shot.

For instance, at just over one minute into the video, the camera zooms extremely close to the bears. At the same time, the mother appears to look directly at the remote-controlled helicopter, and even appears to swat at the device—which then seems to cause the cub to fall back down the slope.

Kedrov told a Russian website that the zoom effect was done in post-production and that his drone did not scare the animals in any way. But some experts aren’t so sure.

“It could be a zoom on the video camera, but most consumer drones don't have the payload capacity to carry a camera with a high quality zoom lens,” says Mark Ditmer, a wildlife ecologist at Boise State University who has studied the physiological impact drones have on black bears. “I could be wrong, but I would have to guess this is the drone approaching rapidly and the mother panicking and swatting out of fear.”

“You look at the mother bear in that video and she’s staring straight at the drone for chunks of time,” Sophie Gilbert, a wildlife ecologist at the University of Idaho. “From her perspective it’s literally a UFO. It’s an unidentified flying object.”

“She has no idea what it’s doing. She’s probably never seen anything like it in her life. She’s got a very young cub with her, and of course her response is going to be fear,” Gilbert says.

In fact, the presence of the drone—and the desire to flee from it—could explain why the mother and her cub are traversing such treacherous terrain to begin with; Mothers with such young offspring usually avoid difficult travels unless necessary.

The sound and the flurry

While the details of this particular incident are still coming out, there are many other videos online that show the effects drones can have on wildlife.

Gilbert points to videos of drones hovering above brown bears eating salmon, of a wolf attacking a moose, and of pronghorn antelope apparently trying to escape a low-flying drone as examples of where the machines are actually influencing the behavior of the animals.

“I don’t know how much time you’ve spent around drones being flown, but they’re really loud,” says Gilbert, who conducted a review of how drones are being used in research in 2016. While some of these videos have soundtracks, many of them peaceful, “that is not how it sounds in real life.”

Noise alone can take a toll on wild animals. It distracts them from other necessary functions, like eating or competing for mates. In some animals, these machines may trigger a fight or flight response, while others show increased vigilance like they would in the presence of a predator. And some animals appear not to be affected at all.

Looks can be deceiving, however. In Ditmer’s study from 2015, he was able to show that while most black bears didn’t run away or react in obvious ways to drones flying overheard, their heartrates were going through the roof.

“Large spikes in heart rate indicate a stress response,” he explains. “In the most extreme example we saw bear's heart rate increase from 41 beats per minute prior to the drone flight to 162 beats per minute when the drone was overhead.”

And while it’s true that bears and other creatures can handle a quick heartbeat now and again, Ditmer notes that wild animals are already under a lot of stress trying to find enough food and avoid predators.

What’s more, humans are adding to this stress load all the time as we continue to encroach into wild areas, piling on still more noise with cars, airplanes, ships, and oil and gas extraction.

Flying drones safely

One thing that was clear after speaking with several experts is that nobody is saying we should ban all drones.

“After reading some of the comments on the bear video, I am concerned that people demonize drones,” says Margarita Mulero-Pázmany, a lecturer in unmanned aerial vehicles at Liverpool John Moores University in the United Kingdom. “That would be a mistake. We should not blame the tool just because it can be misused.”

Instead, we should develop best practices for scientists, hobbyists, and outdoors-enthusiasts alike that protect both animals and people.

In a review she conducted in 2016, Mulero-Pázmany suggests that drone operators avoid flying at animals head-on, as this is thought to be most threatening. Similarly, all flights should be as short and discrete as possible, while using models are smaller and electric which are much quieter than larger, gas-powered drones. Altitude is also key, and operators should strive to stay as high above the scene as possible while still gathering useful data.

Finally, care should be taken to avoid endangered species, animals that may be more vulnerable to drone presence like those that fly or who have evolved to fear aerial predators, and to never interfere with animals during sensitive times in their life cycle, such as breeding seasons.

“I think it’s a double-edged sword,” says Gilbert. On the one hand, when drones are operated correctly, there’s a chance to help people feel more connected with wildlife, which she says is extremely important for conservation outcomes.

But people also need to remember that animals have their own lives, needs, and fears to attend to, and we “need to not interfere,” Gilbert says.