Drones Track Monkeys in Malaysia as “Monkey Malaria” Spreads


KUALA LUMPUR — In the humid, thick jungles of Borneo, drones track monkeys in Malaysia to learn how macaques are passing a primate-exclusive strain of malaria to humans.

Known as “monkey malaria,” there has been a sharp increase in human cases of the disease, and as much as 69 percent of all human malaria cases in Malaysia are caused by the monkey strain. Data shows that the number of human cases in Malaysia has spiked from 376 in 2008 to 1,604 in 2016, and there were eight related deaths in the same year. This particular strain stems from a parasite called Plasmodium knowlesi and has a high fatality rate among human victims due to a 24-hour replication cycle. It is commonly mistaken for a different and milder form of malaria. 

Drones Track Monkeys in Malaysia to Predict Outbreaks

In some areas, as much as 86 percent of macaques carry the Plasmodium knowlesi parasite, yet it appears to have little effect on the monkeys. At the moment, the parasite is endemic in Southeast Asia. There is also concern over the lack of solutions to prevent transmission such as drug administration, which would be difficult considering the primary carriers of the disease are monkeys. The key is predicting outbreaks before they occur, and the only equipment required is a $14,000 drone and a laptop.

A team of researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine conceived the idea to have drones track monkeys in Malaysia and have cleverly titled the research program the Monkey Bar Project, which started in 2013. The researchers’ collected data focuses on long-tailed macaques, the most common species of monkey in the Malaysian state of Sabah.

Monkey Bar Project a Cost-Effective Way to Prevent Malaria Transmission

The researchers suspect there is a strong correlation between the deforestation of Malaysia’s jungles and the frequent occurrence of the disease. When the macaques are displaced and forced to move away from their habitat, they may wander into human living spaces. Citizens are at risk if they come in contact with the macaques.

The benefit of having drones track monkeys in Malaysia is that it is a method of overseeing changes in the terrain and tracking deforestation and plant life, while also utilizing infrared cameras that track the movement of the monkeys themselves. The cameras take pictures from an aerial view, which are put together in an accurate representation of a detailed map, enabling researchers to predict the number of monkeys in an area at any given time. Making use of drones is less costly than using satellite images, which can cost millions of dollars.

The use of drones to prevent diseases has become more common. They are being used in areas such as the Zanzibar islands in Tanzania to identify mosquito breeding grounds, which are potential hotspots for malaria. The Monkey Bar Project is now in the second phase of action, which consists of taking blood samples from about 10,000 people and having them answer a questionnaire. Researchers will publish the results of their study over the course of the last five years by the end of 2018.

– Camille Wilson

Photo: Flickr


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