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Drones using AI to track rare Māui dolphins

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The population of the exquisite and highly endangered Māui dolphin, found off New Zealand’s North Island, has dwindled to an estimated 63 adults. (Photo: Otago University and NZ Whale and Dolphin Trust)
The population of the exquisite and highly endangered Māui dolphin, found off New Zealand’s North Island, has dwindled to an estimated 63 adults. (Photo: Otago University and NZ Whale and Dolphin Trust)

WELLINGTON: The New Zealand’s government said on Friday that it was backing a new project that uses drone technology to understand and protect the country’s extremely rare and endangered Māui dolphins.

Maui dolphins live in a small stretch of ocean off the west coast of New Zealand’s North Island and current estimates suggest that only 63 dolphins older than one year remain, raising concerns that they may soon become extinct.

The new Māui Drone Project is a one-year collaboration between the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI), non-profit wildlife technology organisation MAUI63 and WWF-New Zealand.

The unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) is capable of finding and tracking Māui dolphins using artificial intelligence. The technology has the potential to compile detailed data on the habitats, population size and distribution and behaviour of the dolphins, along with many other types of marine species such as other dolphins, seabirds, and whales, officials said.

“There has been unfortunately for many years disputes over how to best protect Māui  dolphins,” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said after announcing the initiative, adding that the government has stepped in to fund the project and help protect the dolphins. “But we need everyone to come together.”

Fishing companies Moana New Zealand and Sanford Limited are also supporting the project. The government has already moved to restrict fishing around the areas Māui  dolphins frequent.

“By advancing our understanding of how Māui dolphins behave during the day and throughout the year this project will help us ensure the measures our government has already put in place to protect our Māui dolphins are robust and appropriate,” said Oceans and Fisheries Minister David Parker.

The drone ensures dolphins remain undisturbed as they fly at an altitude of over 120 metres.  

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