Earlier this year, technology came to the aid of India’s endangered wildlife, where human intervention had proved inadequate. For the first time, drones were used to track the movement of tigers that had radio collars at the Panna Tiger Reserve, in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh.
In the past, Panna has faced a severe poaching problem, leading to the disappearance of all tigers from the reserve in 2009. It is now hoped that Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) will also help vulnerable park officials keep an eye on armed poachers.
After the success of the Panna pilot project, the Indian Government is considering the use of drones in 10 other protected areas rich in biodiversity by early 2015. These include the Sunderbans in West Bengal, the Himalayan foothills, the Western ghats and the Andaman islands.
For the Panna initiative, the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) joined hands with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), a US-based company called Conservation Drones, and the Wildlife Institute of India.
Conservation Drones started on a small scale in 2012 to map endangered orangutans in the forests of Sumatra. Soon after, UAVs flew over Nepal’s Chitwan National Park tracking elephants and tigers.
However, if the Indian government’s plans are realised, this will be the first time drones will be used anywhere to give a fillip to wildlife conservation at a national level. Apart from monitoring animal and poacher activity as mentioned earlier, drones are handy for night-time surveillance and of elusive animals such as the snow leopard.
K. Ramesh, scientist and UAV programme coordinator at the Wildlife Institute of India, says, “UAVs will prove useful in animal population estimation in difficult terrains, for instance, coastal and swampy areas like mangroves – the Sunderbans, the Rann of Kutch, Point Calimere, and mountains – the Western ghats and the Himalayas. So far, we have only used guestimates for animals such as the Nilgiri and Himalayan tahr, but drones will help us arrive at more accurate figures.”
Currently, the drones used in India travel at a speed of 40 km per hour and stay in air for around 45 minutes each time. With the most sophisticated drone unit now costing less than Rs. 600,000 (just over 6,000 GBP), they are seen as cheap and efficient conservation aids. Lian Pin Koh of Conservation Drones sees these recent experiments with UAVs as indicative of a larger trend and says in a recent interview, “Hopefully [this technology] will just become part of the toolkit of every biologist in the future.”
According to Ramesh, one of the biggest positive outcomes of the use of UAVs is that the conservation discourse has now shifted from a small bunch of biologists and environmentalists to a much larger population. “For instance, now we have engineers and Informational Technology professionals also involved in the conservation process. I think this is an important step forward,” he says.
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