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The social impacts of using drones for wildlife conservation

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Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or ‘drones’, are rapidly gaining in popularity as wildlife conservation tools. They appear to offer a flexible, accurate and above all affordable source of high quality data on everything from land use to species populations to illegal activities; all of which can be used to improve conservation actions. As a consequence, drones are being taken up with great enthusiasm by the conservation science and practice communities, which see them as a technical solution to problems of monitoring and enforcement. However, seen from the (literally) on the ground perspective of human stakeholders in contested conservation landscapes, drones may be interpreted very differently; as technologies of surveillance and enforcement, hovering overhead for mysterious or oppressive purposes. From this viewpoint drones are not technical solutions, but ethical and political problems. They raise questions of legitimacy (who should be allowed to use them?), of privacy (who can use the data?) and of efficacy (will they ‘work’ for conservation?). Recent conservation practice has tended to move away from the ‘fortress conservation’ model towards an approach of working with local people, but drones have the potential to gravely undermine relations between conservation and other stakeholders. In so doing drones may ultimately provide data for short term conservation success, but create the social and political conditions for long term failure. This paper presents a set of social and political concerns that arise from the use of conservation drones, and discusses their implications for conservation practice. In doing so it draws on lessons that can be learned from earlier examples of the use of new technology for social or environmental purposes.

This talk is part of the Darwin College Humanities and Social Sciences Group series.

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