Drones Are Spying on Chinese Mountain Yaks

Small-fry unmanned aerial vehicles have been set to monitor the activity of the endangered species in a new conservation project.

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Jan 6 2014, 4:30pm
Photo via Flickr/CC.

Hostels around Shangri-La sell themselves by telling tourists: “It will be just you and the Yaks!”

One hostel in particular, the Lao Shay Youth Hostel, is known for its yak tourism. After all, guests will have the furry creatures up at their front hostel doors, and not much else.

Surrounded by the steep Altun Mountains, one new hotel guest is joining the yaks in western China—drones.

To research China’s wild mountain yaks, small-fry unmanned aerial vehicles have been set to monitor the activity of the endangered species in a project co-created by scientists at the Beijing Normal University and the Xinjiang Altun Mountain Nature Reserve, the BBC reports.

First, they want to count the yaks with four drone flights set in November. The reserve department chief Zhang Xiang told the USA China Daily that the drones are monitoring yaks' living conditions to better preserve the species. "It's extremely difficult for field workers to access their habitats or track their activities," said Xiang, who has been a tour guide with the Australia-China Desert Adventure.

Roughly 10,000 wild yaks roam the Altun Mountains, which has the highest average elevation on average at 4,000 meters. That’s about as high as the Alps; the teetering Mount Blanc clocks in at 4,810 meters high.

Dajun Wang, Ph.D., a professor at the School of Life Sciences at the Peking University in Beijing, says the current climate of wildlife in western China is still highly diverse, despite the few and far between humans.

While tourism has made it look like the yaks are alone in the Altun Mountains, there are 60 different species, 18 of which are Class 1 and 2 protected. Bridged between the intersection of Xinjiang and Xizang, the area is frequently used for scientific research. However, it may not stay that way long, as the area is notorious for Silk Road tourism.

“It is changing since the ability of humans using the natural resources is improving rapidly,” said Wang, who is currently working on species in the Sichuan Forest, including giant panda.

“Compared to the high diversity, the scientific information is poor,” he said.

Typically undisturbed by humans, the yaks better get used to drones—and more research. While monitoring the yaks is one thing, following up with conservation actions is another.

“There is no simple way to protect a species or habitat,” said Wang. “Any wildlife species is critically important for China, especially under the background of global extinction."

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