Over the past few days, you may have seen a viral video of a little brown bear and its mother traversing an impossibly steep, snowy cliff side. The mother makes it to the top, but her cub struggles, sliding down the cliff several times until, after nearly three nail-biting minutes, it succeeds in reuniting with its mom. To many viewers, the video was an inspiration, a reminder to be like that fluffy little creature who does not give up in the face of adversity. But to wildlife experts, the clip was a worrying example of how drone users harass animals for the sake of getting a perfect shot.
The video was taken by one Dmitry Kedrov while flying his drone on the coast of Russia’s Sea of Okhotsk this summer, reports Jason Bittel of National Geographic. And from the start, something is off about the clip. Why was the mother bear trying to cross such perilous terrain with a small and vulnerable cub? It is very possible, experts say, that she was frightened into unusual behavior by the drone hovering overhead.
“The bears would not have felt the need to take these risks were they not disturbed by the drone,” Dani Rabaioitti, a PhD student with the Zoological Society of London, wrote on Twitter. “The drone operator could have killed the cub.”
You don’t have to look too closely at the video to realize that the mother bear appears unsettled. At one point, her cub very nearly reaches the top of the cliff, and the drone zooms in close. The mother suddenly swipes at the cub, causing it to plummet back down the cliff. Clayton Lamb, a University of Alberta researcher who studies grizzly bears, tells Ed Yong of the Atlantic that she may have interpreted the encroaching drone as an attack, and was trying to swat her baby away from danger.
“[I]t doesn’t matter how far away [the drone] was,” Lamb says, “because I can tell from the bears’ behavior that it was too close.”
This is hardly the first time that an amateur drone operator has caused distress to a wild animal. Ecologist Sophie Gilbert, who studies how drones impact wildlife, has put together an entire YouTube playlist of what she sees as irresponsible drone-operating behavior. It is important to remember, Gilbert tells Bittel, that a drone is “literally a UFO” to animals like the mother bear, who have no idea what is zooming in towards them. The devices are also quite loud, causing additional disturbances that can distract animals from vital behavior—like eating—or prompt a fight-or-flight response.
Not all animals are affected by drones in the same way. For instance, a 2017 study of snow geese in Manitoba, Canada found that “unmanned aircraft systems” appeared to cause “minimal disturbance” to the birds. But animals can feel stressed without exhibiting any noticeable changes in behavior. A 2015 study, which fitted black bears with cardiac monitors, found that the animals didn’t always move when a drone flew overhead, but their heart rates increased rapidly.
“In the most extreme example, we saw [a] bear’s heart rate increase from 41 beats per minute prior to the drone flight to 162 beats per minute when the drone was overhead,” study author Mark Ditmer tells Faine Greenwood of Slate. “It is a cautionary tale that wildlife may not act distressed, but they may be incredibly stressed.”
This isn’t to say that drones should have no place in human’s interactions with wild animals. In fact, drones have become a key tool for scientists who study hard-to-reach creatures, like narwhals in remote arctic waters and orangutans in their treetop nests. Margarita Mulero-Pázmany, a lecturer in unmanned aerial vehicles at the U.K.’s Liverpool John Moores University, tells National Geographic’s Bittel that both experts and animal enthusiasts can safely use drones if they take care to adhere to certain practices: Don’t fly at animals head on, keep the drones as far away as possible, use models that are small and electric (gas-powered drones are larger and noisier), steer clear of endangered species and don’t try to film animals during sensitive periods, like breeding season.
But other experts seem to think that it’s best for amateur wildlife observers to just keep drones out of the equation. Responding to the video of the mother and baby bear, Gilbert wrote emphatically on Twitter: “Don’t. Approach. Wildlife. With. Drones!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”