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How drones are helping combat monkey-spread malaria in Malaysia

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In the dense, steamy jungles of Borneo, drones are playing an important role in helping us understand how monkeys are passing malaria on to humans.

What the?!?

Yup – it’s certainly an odd story. Macaque monkeys, which are plentiful in Borneo, have been found to carry a strain of malaria that is deadlier than other types when it crosses over to humans. The Guardian reports that 69 percent of malaria cases reported in Malaysia during the past year were found to be from the monkey strain.

There were more than 1600 Malaysian malaria cases in 2016, eight of which resulted in death. Research has revealed that widespread, devastating deforestation affecting many parts of Borneo forces primates out of their natural habitat and into closer proximity with humans. The resulting closeness between monkeys and humans raises the risk of people getting infected.

How are drones helping out?

One of the research drones studying monkey populations in Borneo. Photo credit: LSHTM.

Drones are fulfilling multiple roles in the areas of Borneo with higher concentrations of macaques and other monkeys. Some drones are tasked with monitoring deforestation and keeping an up-to-date record of the state of the plant-life. A $14,000 fixed-wing UAV controlled via laptop will fly in grid patterns for 40 minutes at a time snapping pictures. Those photographs are then stitched together using software resulting in detailed, high-resolution maps of Borneo jungles (or lack thereof). In this application, drones represents a fast, cost-effective manner of assessing the state of plant-life compared to other methods (such as relying on satellite images or human observations).

Drones in the area have also been equipped with infrared cameras. These crafts fly above the forests at regular intervals to keep track of the movement and migration patterns of groups of monkeys (useless fact: the collective noun for a group of monkeys is ‘troop’). The researchers who work for an organisation called the Monkey Bar Project, have also attached collars to individual monkeys to see how they react to deforestation. The combination of tracking collars and infrared images can aid researchers in quickly determining the number of monkeys in a particular area at a time. This data helps authorities predict and prepare for the next potential malaria outbreak.

Borneo – an island split between Malaysia and Indonesia.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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