New tech tested to support kangaroo management

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PhD student Evan Curtis has reached a turning point in research investigating the use of drones, simulation studies and artificial intelligence (AI) to sustainably manage the kangaroo industry in NSW.

Evan, a student at the University of Sydney, is mid-way through his project, Determining optimal management strategies for four large macropods in NSW, which is funded by a scholarship through AgriFutures Australia’s Kangaroo Program.

The AgriFutures Kangaroo Program invests in research which aims to further enhance animal welfare, sustainability, communication and extension, nutritional value, food safety, and product value. The AgriFutures Kangaroo Program RD&E Plan 2021-2026 outlines the key priorities of the Australian kangaroo industry, and guides research, development and extension investments linked to those priorities.

Evan’s PhD will investigate if drone technology is an economically viable option to improve the accuracy and precision of kangaroo population surveys. The research will also aim to improve understanding of kangaroo movement between management zones and how this affects population estimates. Evan will then develop frameworks to guide population estimates and quota setting in response to climatic variables.

“My PhD is looking at kangaroo management more broadly and will build upon our current understanding,” Evan said.

“The research is heavily underpinned by the investigation of the broad-scale use of drone technologies. There’s a big push towards trying to incorporate drones into how we manage flora and fauna but it’s important to understand the implications of using that technology before it’s taken up or operationalised.

“I think it’s great that the kangaroo industry values research. It shows that they’re aware of current uncertainties and the importance of investigation and making management decisions based on evidence. It also demonstrates accountability which is important for any industry.”

The PhD research focuses on strategy 1.2 in AgriFutures’ Kangaroo Program RD&E Plan (2021-2026) which aims to improve understanding of the ecology and management of the four large macropod species in NSW. The species approved for commercial harvest and export include the red, eastern grey and western grey kangaroos and the common wallaroo or euro. None are listed as a threatened species under national environment law, or under state or territory legislation.

AgriFutures Australia Kangaroo Program Manager, Stephen Taylor, said the kangaroo industry is highly regulated in Australia, operating under a quota system administered by state and federal governments to maintain a viable population.

“New South Wales has nine kangaroo management zones in the Western Plains and six in the Tablelands in the east of the state,” Stephen said.

“There is currently no significant natural predator in New South Wales for kangaroos and commercial harvest is generally significantly less than the approved quota.”

The need for further research in kangaroo management in Australia was highlighted in the 2021 parliamentary inquiry into the ‘Health and wellbeing of kangaroos and other macropods in New South Wales’.

“It is expected that this research will wholly or partially address several published recommendations made by the NSW Department of Planning and Environment’s Portfolio Committee,” Stephen said.

A different approach to aerial surveys

The first stage of Evan’s research focused on planning and conducting drone surveys in the field.

“I’ve used a combination of simulation studies and theoretical work to test different approaches and the effectiveness of estimations. I’ve also completed drone field surveys in different topographical areas of the state,” he explained.

“I’ve tried to keep the work relevant to real world problems, so I’ve put an emphasis on contextualising the methods that I’m using with those that are currently being used by the industry. We’re doing direct comparisons in the same location to see how they stack up and what questions arise.”

Evan explained that kangaroo population monitoring in NSW is currently conducted by an observer in a helicopter or fixed wing aircraft. Given the speculative nature of this approach, it often results in an underestimation of population numbers.

“Drones are a comparatively safer approach to monitoring as it avoids people flying in aircraft at low levels. They can reduce the time and resources needed to conduct on-the-ground monitoring, and drones can also provide greater transparency as the data is recorded and can be analysed if there is an issue,” Evan said.

“On the flip side, there is a range of constraints to consider when operating a drone including legislation and licensing requirements. Additional resources will also be needed in the post-processing of data.

“I’m at a turning point in the research as I have enough field data collected that I can begin to analyse what I’m observing on the ground. It has been challenging to get to that point, so that feels like a milestone for me.”

Delving into the detail

The next step for Evan’s research is to investigate different approaches to analyse data collected by the drones, including the use of AI.

“The drone produces a different type of data than what’s captured by humans. However, blind reliance on an AI method can produce overestimates. There can be tolerances included in various algorithms that can account for that,” Evan said.

“I’m really looking forward to diving into the analysis and seeing what the data tells me. That will feed into the frameworks for the population dynamics modelling.”

Evan will use historical data and information from the drone field surveys to draw relationships between different variables which impact kangaroo population numbers (such as climatic conditions) and population density estimates within each of the management zones in NSW. The modelling could be used by the state government, industry and landholders to monitor commercial harvest quotas and realise potential opportunities in Australia’s kangaroo industry.

“I’m hoping the drone data can inform various dynamic modelling approaches. Kangaroo population density estimates could be updated more frequently such as every couple of months using climatic or vegetation data which is available on a daily basis,” Evan said.

A challenging PhD that is paying off

Prior to undertaking his PhD, Evan completed a Bachelor of Science at the University of Wollongong and an Honours project which investigated management of river redgums. Evan’s interest in the topic for his PhD peaked after coming across current challenges in the management of Australia’s kangaroo industry.

“I really enjoy doing research and solving problems. I see myself as an ecologist and one of the ways that my work can be useful is through investigating management approaches, ensuring they’re done in a sustainable way and making sure the best possible information is used to make decisions,” he explained.

“The PhD so far is fantastic. It’s a constant challenge, but I love it. I’d encourage anyone thinking of doing a PhD to do it for the love of research and investigation rather than a particular topic or sector, and be motivated by a desire to learn.”

Find out more about the AgriFutures Kangaroo Program

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