Drones offer a bird's-eye view of conservation
Abu Dhabi - Documentary filmmaker Jonathan Ali Khan gets to tell stories of conservation using drones.
Following turtles in narrow mangrove waters under the canopies of dense trees, getting up close to Arabian oryx without scaring or disturbing the herd in the slightest, sharing a tree branch with a rarely seen Arabian-Collard Kingfisher in Kalba (Sharjah), the only place on Earth this bird still exists, were some of the stories documentary filmmaker Jonathan Ali Khan gets to tell from using drones.
Since last year, he has been working on a film documenting UAE's wildlife and the largely unknown conservation projects done here and, for the first time in his career, he worked with DJI drones to film tough-to-get scenes.
"It was exhilarating using drones! In the old days we were using helicopters at extreme costs. Drones are very easy to use and we got nice, high quality images without impacting on the wildlife," said Khan.
His documentary, "Discover the Last Wilderness of the UAE", will take another eight months or so to complete, and when ready, it will be screened on Discovery Channel and on the in-flight entertainment of Emirates Airlines. It will be split into three different films - the desert, the mountains and the waters of the UAE.
"For the last 20 years, we are losing touch with the natural world and the film is meant to reconnect people with their natural world," said the environmental filmmaker.
The film is meant to communicate not just with the general public, but with decision makers as well, to attract their attention on the extraordinarily resilient wildlife of the UAE that manages to cope with the harsh climatic conditions here and human development.
"I found that the best ways to do that is to put across a film that shows the growing conservation projects in the UAE. People often don't know about these projects, they are usually surprised how much conservation is done for the wildlife here," stressed Khan.
The Arabian oryx was brought back into the wild from the brink of extinction, a desert dweller that learned to cope with extreme heat by reducing its body temperature by up to seven degrees; the coral reefs in the Arabian Sea adapted to salinity levels and up to 20 degrees fluctuations in sea water temperatures, way beyond their usual capabilities; Arabian-Collard Kingfisher still survives in Kalba, home to the oldest mangrove forest in the region; the world's second largest population of dugongs, another endangered species, lives in Abu Dhabi's waters.
"We are at the heart of an area threatened by full devastation from global warming, so what makes these animals, this wildlife special? This is another part I try to inject into the film," he said.
To answer such questions, Khan works closely for his project with the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve (DDCR), Sharjah's Environment and Protected Areas Authority (EPAA) and the Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi.
The documentary quickly raised the interest of DJI, the international drone manufacturer that supports the project with professional Phantom drones, and which also supplied drones to DDCR and EPAA.
In the light of recently bad reputation drones are receiving in the UAE, due to several incidents that led to closing down both Abu Dhabi and Dubai airports, DJI is keen to show the authorities here that drones do a lot more good than bad.
"If someone wants to use a drone for bad purposes, they will do it regardless of what regulations are in place. Of course, we want to work with authorities here to improve regulations and promote safe use of drones, but banning them is not the answer," said Caroline Briggert, head of stakeholder relations at DJI.
In fact, DJI has just launched its latest drone sensation in New York last week: the Mavic Pro. This foldable drone, small enough to toss in a bag and weighing just 680 grammes, is equipped with a stabilised 4K video camera and a 12 megapixels still camera, as well as visual navigation system. It comes with a 7km range and 27-minute flight time.
The new drone will work with DJI's Goggles, displaying an 85-degree view from the drone for a true bird's-eye view of the world below. The goggles receive video directly from Mavic Pro in the air and not through the controller, reducing lag to a minimum.
"With the goggles you can see what camera on the drone sees; it is like you are flying yourself," said Briggert. The Mavic Pro will be available in UAE from October 4, at US$1099.
In general, drones have proved highly useful in environmental, education and research programmes, in farming, monitoring projects or mapping.
"In the recent earthquake in Vigli del Fuoco in Italy, where an entire village was nearly erased, drones were able to show emergency forces how to best go from one point to another, thus being more effective in their rescue mission," pointed out Briggert.
In the UAE, John Pereira, a conservation researcher at EPAA, has been using drones to monitor the high population of turtles in Kalba's mangroves, which are notoriously difficult to count.
"We thought we had 30 to 40 turtles, but with the drones we found 70," he said.
"We also found a hot spot where they gather that was outside our protected area, so we talked to the authorities to include this area in our protected zone."
Pereira, who worked closely with Khan for the documentary, has found drones ideal in filming in the dense mangrove forests of Kalba.