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Tech push brings tiger habitat ‘alive’ in Karnataka reserve

                                                                               The Indian Express, Bangalore, 17th February, 2013

An ingenious initiative in the BRT tiger reserve in Karnataka that has put everyday technology like a GPS tracking device, a cellphone and a laptop in the hands of forest watchers — foot soldiers at the frontlines of tiger conservation — could be a potential gamechanger in the campaign to save India's national animal.

As they go about their daily dawn-to-dusk foot patrols through miles of wooded terrain, each forest watcher now carries a nifty device through which he logs the location of every sighting: tigers and herds of prey, snares and cooking fires that indicate intrusions, and so on. The watchers, many of them semi-literate tribals, transfer the data to a laptop and, using cellphone signal boosters, send it from the hilly terrain to a centralised data centre.

The initial success of such data gathering has encouraged forest authorities in Karnataka to extend the plan to all tiger reserves in the state.

While daily monitoring by foot is mandated by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), this is the first time that ubiquitous technology like GPS has been put into the hands of forest watchers stationed at remote anti-poaching camps deep inside the forest. The technological intervention is a crucial step in closely monitoring the habitat of the tiger.

"Sketchy, uncorroborated data would be scrawled in anti-poaching camp registers and lie covered in dust for years, but this brings the tiger's habitat alive," said Vijay Mohan Raj, chief conservator of forests at BRT reserve, who spearheaded the project called Huli (tiger in Kannada).

The pilot project has shown remarkable success in the six months of its trial involving 16 tribal watchers in four anti-poaching camps in the Punjur range of BRT reserve. The daily logs lend themselves to easy consolidation into monthly reports which then present a bigger picture of the ecosystem's dynamics — from the movement of elephant herds to the seasonality of prey like gaur and deer, disturbances to the habitat from poachers and grazers, and animal mortality. "It is a never-before depiction of a landscape in its entirety," said Raj.

The challenge has been in keeping the technology simple enough for use by the forest watchers. The use of simple graphic user interfaces helped pull this off.

Raj said he also got some crucial information from Huli: many forest watchers walk an average of 10 hours daily and cover 8 to 18 kilometers of tricky terrain but receive very little nutrition; they survive on three rice meals coming out of a daily government provision of Rs 40.

"Also, the natural history skills of these tribal watchers is immense, it is getting documented for the first time with this project," said Raj.

Though foot patrols are at the forefront of tiger conservation elsewhere in India, wildlife experts have criticised these as being ineffective as they cannot be monitored. But use of technology heralds a shift in cultural thinking in tiger conservation, said Y V Jhala of the Dehra Dun-based Wildlife Institute of India.

"With GPS track logs, the watchers cannot go sit in the tea shop and say they have trekked 10 kilometres," said Jhala. "Once a GPS log is generated, you know exactly which area is patrolled and what are the vulnerable points in that area." The data generated by such patrol logs is an invaluable aid to future planning and could go a long way in managing tiger reserves, he added.

Already, the co-relation between the prey base and the tiger population in BRT reserve is helping forest officials decide whether patrolling should be intensified and in which areas. Importantly, six months of data has shown that the reserve has a prey base to support a larger population of tigers.

"What Vijay Raj has done may not be ground-breaking, but it is a great demonstration of how enthusiasm and initiative by a committed forest official can marry simple technology and conservation," said Andre Pittet, who works in the field of applying technology to wildlife studies at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore.