A large crocodile leaves the water in Costa Rica. CSU Channel Islands students are midway through their trip to the Central American country, where they are using a drone to count and map the reptiles’ locations.(Photo: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/CSUCI)

Q COSTA RICA (Anne Kallas, Vcstar.com) Twenty students from CSU Channel Islands are in the middle of a 10-day trip to Costa Rica, where they’re using a drone to count crocodiles and map the creatures’ exact locations.

It’s part of a larger project aimed at keeping the reptiles and humans at a safe distance from one other.

Led by professor Donald Rodriguez, the students are using the drone to count the saltwater crocodiles that have become so numerous at an estuary that they’re now a big attraction — with tragic results. According to Rodriguez, someone lost a leg to a crocodile recently.

The state-of-the-art technology being used on the study trip came from CSUCI associate professor Sean Anderson’s fleet of about 20 flying robots.

Anderson, who heads the school’s Ecological Restoration Lab, said the drone is being tested for the first time as a tool for researchers to count the dangerous reptiles.

“We’re wondering whether the robots can be more effective than one person looking essentially sideways at a river and estuary,” Anderson said. “From our work elsewhere, we’ve seen huge advantages from above with the rover looking down.”

The drone is an autonomous quadcopter powered by a lithium polymer battery. It has about 10 to 15 minutes of flight time, according to Rodriguez.

This is the second time Rodriguez has taken a group to Costa Rica to conduct ecological research. He said he formerly took students to Mexico to examine wildlife, but when conditions there became too dangerous because of crime and attacks on tourists, he turned his attention to Costa Rica.

This latest group that left Sunday is conducting research at Las Baulas National Marine Park, on the western side of Costa Rica. It’s a known habitat of the leatherback sea turtle, which is a protected species.

CSUCI geomorphologist Linda O’Hirok is also on the trip, Rodriguez said, looking at and documenting the sea turtles’ nesting area, which is facing encroachment from surfers and tourists.

Crocodiles gather at an estuary in Costa Rica, a spot that is also attracting curious humans, sometimes with tragic results. (Photo: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/CSUCI)

Rodriguez said that while the very small turtle population is holding steady, the saltwater crocodile population has exploded, thanks to fishermen who leave behind fish guts and other trash that entice the reptiles. The small strip of beach has also become a magnet for tourists who feed the crocodiles — a dangerous practice.

The students will go out on panga boats into the estuary where the crocodiles live and count them by hand and using the drone, which will fly a pattern over the river.

“With this robot, they may count, say, 10 crocodiles by flying overhead, instead of, say, eight that might get counted by someone standing on the side of the river,” Anderson said.

He said the goal is to eventually automate all wildlife counts.

“We will be able to do (the counting) more quickly if we automate,” he said. “And the computer would do detection of eyes and body shapes. There are all the big cost savings of using this, and there is much improved accuracy.”

In exchange for this trip, CSUCI will welcome a contingent from the University of Costa Rica later this year, Rodriguez said. The students will study the land and ecosystems on Santa Rosa Island.

“And they can go to protected areas in the Santa Monica Mountains, where we work with the Park Service there,” Rodriguez said. “The idea is that we could provide a kind of unique Mediterranean environment for them. And they’re providing a unique environment for us with tropical ecosystems.”

Rodriguez, the chairman of the Environmental Science and Resource Management Program at CSUCI, said his students tend to be interested in outdoor occupations such as being a park ranger or researcher.

“Our program is unique in that it combines what is traditional Earth science with resource management,” he said. “My background is in natural resource management of protected areas worldwide and in managing wildlife-human interactions, especially with human encroachment into dwindling habitats.”

Follow the CSUCI trip to Costa Rica on the blog http://cr.esrm.zone.

Article originally appeared at Vcstar.com