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Drone photography raises concerns for Sri Lanka’s flamingo flock

  • The annual migration of a flock of thousands of greater flamingos to northern Sri Lanka’s Mannar wetland draws crowds of photographers, a growing number of whom now use drones to snap 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 country’s south was pumped full of fresh water as part of an irrigation program, killing off the shrimp and plankton that flamingos there fed on. The flamingos soon abandoned the wetland.
  • In Mannar, a region impoverished by decades of civil war, the flamingos are a key tourism attraction that should be preserved to help boost the livelihoods of locals, experts say.

MANNAR, Sri Lanka — With reddish-pink, brushstroke-like smudges on its wings, legs and large downward-curved beak, the greater flamingo is a stunning bird to watch, particularly in flight as part of a large flock.

One such flock, numbering about 5,000 greater flamingos (Phoenicopterus roseus), stopped over at the Mannar wetland, a Ramsar site, in northern Sri Lanka this past January. The annual visitors drew large crowds, many of them armed with professional-grade cameras and lenses to match, and others toting smartphones while trying to get up close to the birds.

Then there were those, a small but growing group, that brought drones. Flying them right above the flamingo flock in search of picturesque aerial shots, they included both professional and hobbyist photographers. To environmentalists, however, this emerging trend could pose a serious threat to the flamingos in particular, and to wildlife in general.

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

Drone anxiety  

“When these drones fly just a few meters above the flamingos with the whirring sound of rotors, the birds often treat the noise as an aerial predator and would take off in great anxiety,” said Sampath Seneviratne of the University of Colombo, who studies migratory birds in the area.

If these disturbances continue, he said, the birds may move to more remote areas of the wetland, or perhaps avoid the site entirely.

Drones have long been used for scientific purposes, and in recent years advances in technology mean they’ve become more compact while managing to fly higher, faster, farther and longer. In that time, there’s been considerable research on the impact of low-flying drones on birds, including the risk of mid-air collisions and disturbances to birds that are nesting or feeding. For the migratory flamingos of Mannar, the main threat environmentalists see is a disturbance of their foraging activity.

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

“We appeal to the relevant authorities, and to any of these drone fliers who have a conscience, to immediately stop this destructive practice,” said Spencer Manuapillai, president of the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society (WNPS), Sri Lanka’s oldest conservation organization, which has launched a campaign to prevent drone photography from turning harmful to various species. The primary concern is the flamingos, but drones can also disturb other birds, Manuapillai said.

In Sri Lanka, operating a camera-equipped drone requires approval by the Civil Aviation Authority of Sri Lanka. It’s illegal to fly drones in sensitive areas, so authorities deploy more wildlife officers in places where flamingos aboundant, said Chandana Sooriyabandara, director-general of the Department of the Wildlife Conservation (DWC). The police and navy also support in controlling the crowds, Sooriyabandara told Mongabay.

While recreational use of drones can cause unnecessary disturbances, the technology is a useful tool for wildlife research, said Chandima Fernando, an ecologist with the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society (SLWCS). Fernando uses drones for various wildlife studies for his higher education in New Zealand, and experiments with the use of drones to mitigate human-elephant conflicts, 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 enforcement when it comes to wildlife studies and recreational flying.”

There also needs to be education on the careful use of drones, considering it’s 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 to the community

Mannar, generally a destination only for hard-core wildlife enthusiasts, has now become a center of attraction thanks to the flamingo flock. Most hotels have reported increased bookings, and locals working as guides have also been able to cash in during this period.

“Flamingo is a treasure for the Mannar region, so, we do not want to drive them away because of the irresponsible actions of a few,” said Marynathan Edison, a Mannar-based naturalist who guides visitors on flamingo-watching tours.

Rich in biodiversity, Mannar was for decades cut off from the rest of Sri Lanka, and the world, by the civil war that ran from 1983 to 2009, Only in recent years have the local community, impoverished by the war, begun to benefit from their unique surroundings.

Seneviratne said they should have the opportunity to share in the wealth generated by the wetland’s natural resources. But he added that irresponsible drone activity jeopardizes this opportunity by threatening to drive the flamingos, the biggest attraction there, away from the wetland.

Seneviratne, who conducts migratory bird research using GPS satellite tags, said the flamingos that stop over in Mannar come from India’s Gujarat region. In November 2019, at least 2,000 flamingos were found dead in India, believed to be part of the flock that makes the annual journey to Sri Lanka, Seneviratne told Mongabay. Today, about 70% of the Mannar flamingos are juvenile birds, which is a good sign, Seneviratne said, because it indicates that the flock has largely bounced back over the past two years.

Wasting energy fleeing a disturbance can be dangerous for migratory flamingos, which have to build up their strength between long flights. Image courtesy of Mevan Piyasena.

If the Mannar flamingos end up abandoning 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 into the Bundala wetlands in the south, Sri Lanka’s first Ramsar site. Bundala had long hosted flamingos, which are filter feeders, eating small shrimps and plankton that they scoop up with their large beaks. But with the influx of fresh water, the saline-dependent shrimp and plankton disappeared, and with them, the flamingos.

Bundala, today a freshwater lagoon, serves as a cautionary tale about the importance of not disturbing the delicate balance in nature, Seneviratne said. And this, he added, also applies to photographers, who, like everyone else, should learn to enjoy nature’s wonders in a responsible manner.

Banner image: The flamingo flock in Sri Lanka’s Mannar wetland. The migratory flock this year number more than 5,000 birds. Image courtesy of Upul Rodrigo.

Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: How can we use drones without stressing wildlife? Listen here:

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