By Richa Sharma
Kenya hit the headlines last year when it turned to drones to help track poachers brutally slaughtering elephants for their tusks across its national parks. Now India has taken a leaf out of the African nation’s book to save its tigers.
The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) is all set to use drones and virtual fences to keep an eye on its dwindling tiger population. The trials for using the advanced technology to protect the big cats from poachers will begin in Panna Tiger Reserve, Madhya Pradesh, from January 9.
According to James Hardy, the manager of Mara North Conservancy, a 74,000 acres wilderness track in Kenya, drones are the future of conservation. “A drone can do what 50 rangers can do,” he felt.
The Wildlife Institute of India (WII) Dehradun, the agency handling the drone exercise for tiger reserves, has received clearance from the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to fly drones for trial from January to June this year. The MoD had earlier rejected plans to use drones to track rhinoceros in Kaziranga National Park.
The WII has tied up with a US-based company—Conservation Drones—for the trials and it is taking an assembled drone from them for `6 lakh. The cost of the trials is being born by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) International.
“Subsequent to the approval from MoD, test flying of drones in Panna Tiger Reserve has been scheduled from January 9-13 and the efforts would continue until June 2014 when the permission from MoD ends,” said a senior NTCA official.
Experts from Conservation Drones Lian Pin Koh and Simon Wunderlin would also be in the Panna to demonstrate the working of the gadget. The company was founded by two conservation ecologists.
Conservation drones are low-cost unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) that could be used for surveying wildlife. They are capable of autonomous flight with a flight time of 30 minutes to over an hour and a covering range of 30km to over 50km. Drones can be equipped with high definition night vision camera and can relay real time images and videos back to the control room.
Dr K Ramesh, WII scientist and in-charge of the programme said drones have multiple applications and can be used for monitoring tigers, surveillance of poachers and to carry out advance research like counting of tigers and other animals.
“We are making an effort to use integrated advance technology to monitor tigers in areas where humans cannot reach. Drones can reach hilly, riverine and other difficult terrains and send us pictures. Suppose there is a fire or smoke in the forest, we can fly the drones and would get to know what’s happening on the ground,” said Ramesh.
Drones can help the forest officials in getting updates from the dense forest areas as they have a receiver system that can penetrate into a canopy of trees.
India is home to the largest number of tigers in the world. According to the 2010 tiger census, there are 1,706 tigers in the wild and a big threat of poaching looms over them due to high demand for tiger parts in the international market.
In 2013, 67 tiger deaths were reported compared to 89 in 2012. Of the 67, seven were natural deaths, 14 confirmed cases of poaching while 46 deaths are still under scrutiny.
The NTCA is in the process of counting tigers and the census is expected to be out by November this year.
Simultaneously, the field experiments of Virtual Fence (Wireles Sensor Networks and Communication) would also be done in Panna by a team of scientists from the Indian Institute of Information Technology Allahabad (IIITA).
Virtual Fence is a chain of communication sensors that will be put along the boundary of the Panna Tiger Reserve and it can send alerts based on movements of animals and humans.
“It will function like a radar that can scan the body mass of humans and animals based on the number of bones. It will send alerts when someone crosses the boundary of the tiger reserve. We are hoping to get the first deployment of Virtual Fence in March 2014. It has the potential to be scaled up for use at the national level,” said Ramesh.
The successful trials of drones and virtual fence will add on to the already running trials of using Electronic Eye in the Corbett National Park. The NTCA has put CCTV cameras at some sensitive location in Corbett to track the big cats.
“The use of advanced technology can be a boon as we are already facing shortage of forest guards and these can help in saving our endangered animals,” added Ramesh.