Context: West African crocodylian populations are declining and in need of conservation action. Surveys and other monitoring methods are critical components of crocodile conservation programs; however, surveys are often hindered by logistical, financial and detectability constraints. Increasingly used in wildlife monitoring programs, drones can enhance monitoring and conservation efficacy. Aims: This study aimed to determine a standard drone crocodylian survey protocol and evaluate the drones as a tool to survey the diverse crocodylian assemblage of West Africa. Methods: We surveyed crocodile populations in Benin, Côte d'Ivoire, and Niger in 2017 and 2018, by using the DJI Phantom 4 Pro drone and via traditional diurnal and nocturnal spotlight surveys. We used a series of test flights to first evaluate the impact of drones on crocodylian behaviour and determine standard flight parameters that optimise detectability. We then, consecutively, implemented the three survey methods at 23 sites to compare the efficacy of drones against traditional crocodylian survey methods. Key results: Crocodylus suchus can be closely approached (>10 m altitude) and consumer-grade drones do not elicit flight responses in West African large mammals and birds at altitudes of >40-60 m. Altitude and other flight parameters did not affect detectability, because high-resolution photos allowed accurate counting. Observer experience, field conditions (e.g. wind, sun reflection), and site characteristics (e.g. vegetation, homogeneity) all significantly affected detectability. Drone-based crocodylian surveys should be implemented from 40 m altitude in the first third of the day. Comparing survey methods, drones performed better than did traditional diurnal surveys but worse than standard nocturnal spotlight counts. The latter not only detected more individuals, but also a greater size-class diversity. However, drone surveys provide advantages over traditional methods, including precise size estimation, less disturbance, and the ability to cover greater and more remote areas. Drone survey photos allow for repeatable and quantifiable habitat assessments, detection of encroachment and other illegal activities, and leave a permanent record. Conclusions: Overall, drones offer a valuable and cost-effective alternative for surveying crocodylian populations with compelling secondary benefits, although they may not be suitable in all cases and for all species. Implications: We propose a standardised and optimised protocol for drone-based crocodylian surveys that could be used for sustainable conservation programs of crocodylians in West Africa and globally.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
- Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law