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India launches drones to monitor tigers

Publication Date : 10-01-2014


Mention the word drone, and the image arises of a United States attack on terrorist targets in Afghanistan or Pakistan. But in one forested corner of central India, such unmanned aerial vehicles are not going to be used to kill terrorists, but to track India's national animal - tigers.

At the Panna National Park in the central state of Madhya Pradesh, park rangers will start testing two drones today to track the 23 tigers across 543 sq km of area, from thick forests to dry open land.

"In wildlife, this is the first time it is being done on such a scale by the government. The drones will be fitted with video cameras and still cameras," said S.P. Yadav, deputy inspector-general of the National Tiger Conservation Authority, the government body in charge of India's 41 tiger reserves.

Wildlife Institute of India scientist K. Ramesh said: "We are taking our conservation and forest management to the second level. So far, technology has been used very little except in communication. A drone can be very helpful in surveillance of sensitive places where people are penetrating and to monitor tigers..."

The aerial vehicles, which cost 600,000 rupees (US$9,663) each, are being provided by Conservation Drones, a Switzerland-based non-profit founded by ecologist Koh Lian Pin, who will be in Panna today to help with the tests.

India has half of the world's estimated 3,200 tigers, but raising their numbers has been a struggle.

A continuing demand from China for tiger parts used in medicine has produced rampant poaching, and their habitats continue to shrink in the face of the growing human population.

Poachers killed at least 42 tigers last year, an increase from 32 in 2012, according to the Wildlife Protection Society of India.

Tigers are also being poisoned by people living within and near the national parks who lose livestock to the predators. For instance, two tigers were killed by poisoning last year.

Still, tiger numbers have risen in India - a result of the concerted conservation efforts. A 2011 census found that India had 1,706 tigers, up from 1,411 in 2008. But that is a dramatic drop from the 40,000 tigers that roamed the country in 1947.

"It is a success story... but we still have a lot of fight to do against poachers and the international market," said Ramesh.

Now, with the help of drones, the authorities hope to counter the poaching threat by also keeping track of people movement in the forests.

The entire population of three dozen tigers at Panna National Park was wiped out by poachers in six years. Then, in 2009, conservationists introduced five tigers to the park from outside under a government initiative, and within five years the population was back to 23. Nine of them wear radio collars, and 500 officials, guards and other staff keep track of the tigers at all times.

Panna National Park field director R.S. Murthy said: "It was very tough. Once, a male tiger wandered out of the park and travelled 250km. We had to follow and bring it back."

Now, Murthy hopes drones will not just help efforts to keep watch on such tiger movements in a bid to conserve their numbers, but also help researchers study their behaviour as the tigers grow and mark out their own territories within the park.

Drones have already been used to keep track of wildlife in countries such as Nepal and Kenya.

In India, the Assam government had wanted to use drones in Kaziranga National Park, home to the one-horned rhinoceros, but the defence ministry rejected the request last September because of security issues. The park, which is close to the border area, has a problem with north-east insurgents.

But at Panna, all the clearances have come through, with the project supported by the Wildlife Trust of India and World Wide Fund for Nature.

The pilot project will run till June. Ramesh said if it is successful, a proposal will be put up to the federal government for funding to launch it on a permanent basis, and to other parts of the country.

"We want to test it in Panna and see what improvement is possible... The plan is to assemble our own drones later," he said. "This is not just for Panna, but also the entire country and conservation."


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