AI rescues critically endangered Maui Dolphins

Māui dolphins are a subspecies of the Hector’s dolphin and are one of the rarest dolphins in the world

By   |  Published: 2nd Mar 2021  6:14 pm

Drones join fight to save New Zealand’s rarest dolphin. Numbers of Māui dolphins have been slashed by fishing and other threats, with only an estimated 63 adults remaining in the wild.

The lives of New Zealand’s smallest and most endangered dolphins will soon become less elusive as drones take to the skies to study their location, habits and numbers.

Māui dolphins are a subspecies of the Hector’s dolphin and are one of the rarest dolphins in the world, living in a small stretch of ocean off the west coast of New Zealand’s North Island.

The dolphins, endemic to the country, are listed as “nationally critical” by the Department of Conservation – the highest threat level – and face constant danger from fishing operations, diseases, oil and gas exploration, boat strike, mining, tourism, and noise pollution.

Oceans and Fisheries Minister David Parker said current estimates suggest that only 63 adult Māui dolphins remain, so it’s critical that every effort is made to save them from extinction.
A 2019 Colmar Brunton poll found 81% of New Zealanders believed the government needed to act immediately to save Māui and Hector’s dolphins and halt further population decline.

Tracing and conservation efforts

Initial testing of the drone shows the AI technology can distinguish Māui dolphins from other species with over 90% accuracy.

Fitted with a 50x optical zoom camera, the drone can fly and film for up to six hours, and hovers at an altitude of more than 100m above the sea, with the intention of not disturbing the animals in their natural habitat.

Joint efforts for conservation

The year-long project will cost half a million dollars and see the government partner with the World Wildlife Fund New Zealand and MAUI163.

Once collected the data will be made publicly available and also help inform decisions by major seafood companies such as Moana New Zealand and Sanford, which are exploring how to use the information collected by the drone to reduce the risk to Māui and Hector’s dolphins.

As well as working to save threatened species in New Zealand, the potential of drones is also being tested in remote, inaccessible wilderness areas to hunt out pests such as stoats, rats and possums.

critically endangered

– Location: Off the coast New Zealand’s North Island
Numbers: 63 adults remian now. In 1970s their number was1500
Causes for dwindling numbers: Fishing and diseases like toxoplasmosis
– Māui are a subspecies of the Hector’s dolphin and are one of the rarest in the world


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