According to the latest tiger census, the number of tigers in India has increased by more than 30 per cent in the past four years. The study put the number at 2,226, up from 1,706 in 2010 when the last such tiger-counting exercise was undertaken. For decades, tiger numbers had been declining due to several factors including poaching, man-nature conflict, environmental degradation, and dwindling habitat.
“For the first time after decades of constant decline, tiger numbers are on the rise. This offers us great hope and shows that we can save species and their habitats when governments, local communities and conservationists work together,” said Marco Lambertini, Director General of WWF International.
This remarkable development is evidence of what human perseverance together with real-time intelligence and technology can achieve. It is the victory of modern technologies such as Big Data, Analytics and Internet of Things (IoT). The twenty-first century conservation has capitalized, leveraged and adapted new technology such as wireless Internet, global telecommunication systems, Cloud computing, online mapping and smart phones. These technologies have teamed up with existing tools such as geographic information systems (GIS), satellite imagery and animal-tracking collars.
Such technologies have also minimized human–wildlife conflicts in rural communities by linking mobile phone connectivity to animal tracking telemetry and remote cameras to allow affordable, high-resolution monitoring of species.
Big Data and Analytics combine forces to rescue the big cats
Data captured through satellite images and camera-trap photos and aerial surveillance cameras run into millions, impossible for human beings to analyze. According to one estimate, World Wildlife Fund for Nature staff captured 2.5 million camera-trap photos in 15 protected areas in rainforests around the world. Analyzing such data is a humongous and time-consuming task. Quick decisions in critical situations warrant fast analysis of the structured and unstructured data. This is where Big Data Analytics comes into the picture. Big Data Analytics examines such large data sets to uncover hidden patterns and unknown correlations, leading to interpretation and communication of meaningful conclusions and results. Analytics uses several other forms of unconventional data such as social media content and social network activity reports, emails and survey responses, mobile-phone call detail records and machine data captured by sensors connected to the animals.
For instance, a quick analysis of trap-camera images and geo-spatial imagery could yield fruitful information of the movement of poaching gangs. A forest guard can relay such crucial information to his senior, who can then coordinate with his other staff to stop the gang from inflicting damage to the animals and can also arrest them. The tools have self-learning inbuilt into them; they adapt with the situation so that even when poachers change tactics or areas of operation, they are able to analyze from the data their movements and thus aid critically to conservation efforts, particularly the tigers, the fulcrum of India’s conservation efforts.
“Criminals and poachers are always on the prowl, continuously changing their tactics and strategy. Therefore, we need to be ahead of them. This technology has been a great help to our work. It has ensured that we and other conservation staff are ahead of the criminals, who are often difficult to track in the rugged terrains and lush forests. In order to locate them, continuous and indefatigable surveillance is required. The forest department needs more such technology and high-tech tools,” said a forest official not wanting to be named.
According to TRAFFIC and WWF wildlife trade expert Crawford Allan, the existing efforts must be strengthened on the ground, whereas innovative approaches, including aerial surveillance systems and coordinated intelligence efforts and Analytics, must be introduced as they will send a powerful message across the trade chain from source to consumer. The international value of illicit wildlife trading is as much as $10 billion per year, ranking it as one of the principal illegal global activities along with weapons, drugs and human trafficking.
The Analytics tool can also be used to evaluate the effectiveness of conservation efforts and can be used to benchmark efforts and analyze tangible results, removing gaps in knowledge and allowing improved participation and transparency in monitoring the outcome of focused efforts. The next-generation conservation tools and analyses provide insights that improve conservation decisions, policies, and practices.
How does it work?
The first step is the collection of raw data, that is, the time-stamped image of an animal that has been identified by a scientist but all data cannot be taken at face value. Sometimes an animal would walk in front of the camera hundreds of times, yielding hundreds of pictures of that one animal. Due to such issues, the raw data is simplified. Every site’s data in a given year is divided into time periods (4–6 days for each period), and through the use of algorithms and statistical models the occupancy of a particular animal is determined. Then the Analytics system recalculates the occupancy of all the species in the whole network overnight. That data is especially useful for park managers. If he detects a problem such as species decline at his site, he can then quickly alert someone higher up in the department.
For example, a senior official engaged in tiger conservation efforts in India analyzed the camera-trap data and noticed that the cats were being seen less frequently in places with heavy tourist traffic. He reported the matter to wildlife authorities, who rerouted the itinerary of tourists.
“Such analyzed information also produces biodiversity information that is understandable to policy-makers as well as people involved in conservation efforts. Consistent data collection by different groups increases the accuracy of results. This Big Data Analytics technology can be extended to other areas of conservation as well,” said Brajesh Sachan, Chief Technology Officer, Deskera.
International spotlight on wildlife conservation
There have been widespread concerns across the globe regarding conservation efforts falling flat against the guile of poachers and other wildlife criminals, with a number of political leaders voicing concerns about them. On November 8, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for an end to illicit wildlife trafficking, terming the menace a major foreign policy and security issue.
“Over the past few years wildlife trafficking has become more organized, more lucrative, more widespread, and more dangerous than ever before,” Secretary Clinton said. “We are increasingly seeing wildlife trafficking has serious implications for the security and prosperity of people around the world.”
Her statement comes at a time when there has been an escalation in the poaching crisis around the world and endangered species such as tigers, elephants, and rhinos have been brought to the brink of extinction. Therefore, all technological efforts have to be aimed at in one direction: Saving the beautiful animals, and saving the beautiful earth. It is about ensuring that the later generations get to see and relish what we took for granted.