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-acre wilderness track in Kenya, drones are the future of conservation. “A drone can do the work of 50 rangers,” 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 Rs 6 lakh. The cost of the trials is being born by the World Wide Fund (WWF) for Nature International.
“Subsequent to the approval from MoD, test flying of drones in the 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 30 km to over 50 km. Drones can be equipped with high definition night vision cameras and can relay real time images and videos back to the control room.
Dr K Ramesh, WII scientist and programme in-charge, 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.