This article is part of the Tiger Series and an exclusive extract from the author’s forthcoming memoir, Environment Through Finance Eyes.
Amid the farrago of lacklustre activities that informed the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change’s various divisions, with most things trundling along without a goal, there were a few bright spots that lifted my periodic blues. Among the brightest was the Project Tiger under the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), which continued quietly to do the good work it had been tasked to do the past many years. It was led by Rajesh Gopal, the Additional Director General and the Member Secretary of NTCA, an inspirational leader ably supported by a band of dedicated officers like Satya Prakash Yadav, DIG, and Himmat Singh Negi, IG, at the NTCA headquarters, apart from a string of passionate wildlife forest officers in the field spread across the country in the 50 Tiger Reserves.
Not many people in the Ministry understood what Project Tiger was doing. “Why do we place such an enormous amount of 180-odd crore rupees to care for the tigers?” one senior officer once asked me, out of wide-eyed curiosity and to improve his knowledge on the rationale of governmental spends on plan schemes. What he meant was why must we waste such huge sums feeding tigers – who at times also turn into man-eaters! – when possibly the same money could be better spent on other schemes for the impoverished.
To be fair, he didn’t say exactly that. But I got the drift of his question. I explained to him whatever little I knew. That the tiger is an umbrella species, and as top carnivores they play a crucial role in ordering and preserving landscapes in pristine form in its natural pecking order – thereby maintaining biodiversity. Once you care for the tiger population, other species, including co-predators and preys like smaller carnivores and the varying conglomerate of herbivores in the hierarchy, are taken care of, even down to the habitat and grasslands that herbivores feed off. Tigers in the wild sit atop the food chain, ensuring a bio-eco-balance that sets off a natural cascade among other carnivores (such as leopards), herbivores (like deer, antelopes, wild buffalo) and omnivores (like wild boars), and conserve healthy grassland; it is an evocative symbol of forest protection. Since tigers live in the deep wild, a healthy population of this territorial animal also ensures healthy forests that act as carbon sinks for all living beings on earth.
My words, telescoping vast landscapes with their natural offerings and efficacy on fauna and flora and the planet’s ecosystem to a few bald sentences, would naturally have sounded rather confusing to his disbelieving ears. He veered our conversation off to a different tangent. I wasn’t surprised.
The first time I ventured out to explore and understand Project Tiger in October 2013, I chose the Corbett Tiger Reserve (CTR) in Uttarakhand. It was close to Delhi and I could see the variety it offered to understand what Dr. C. R. Babu, Chairman of the Centre for Environmental Management of Degraded Eco-Systems – one of the Ministry’s Centres of Excellence – had earlier retailed to me: his success story in eradicating Lantana grass in Corbett. Satya Prakash Yadav (‘SP’ to me; ‘SPY’ to his batchmates!) accompanied me.
The Corbett Reserve is spread across 1,300 sq. km with the Ramganga River and two of its tributaries – Sonanadi and Pallain – flowing through it. Arriving at Kalagarh, we took the boat to reach Dhikala. During the monsoon, with this area pounded by incessant rain, Dhikala is completely cut off; the only way to get there from Kalagarh is the waterway. It highlighted the perils for the forest staff during the rainy season – these foot soldiers whose commitment and passion makes the difference in the cause of tiger conservation. Little do babus sitting in air conditioned chambers at New Delhi ever appreciate the efforts put in by these unsung frontline personnel when they seek a visit to the tiger reserves for a couple days to de-stress their minds.
A few things stand out in my memory from this visit. One was visiting the E-Surveillance Control Room at Kalagarh. E-surveillance was an innovative idea where 10 watch towers kept a 24/7 vigil over the area within their range through thermal and infra-red cameras. The pilot project, in its first year, seemed to be bearing fruits from the point of view of surveillance and anti-poaching activities. The Corbett Reserve was the designated field site for this pilot project. The southern boundary of the reserve – between Kalagarh and Dhela – abutting agricultural fields and human habitations, was highly porous. Unauthorised human ingress into these areas, as also of elephants and tigers entering human habitations and farmlands, often led to conflicts.
Once the broad parameters of the project were agreed upon, the Binomial team set upon designing the hardware and software. Detailed field surveys and discussions led to further refinements in system requirements and design. Finally, in 2012, e-Eye was born. The system comprised of a series of short range infra-red night vision and long range thermal camera stations, mounted on high towers. The cameras were connected to a central Control Room using WiMAX and remotely operated by authorised personnel. They had powerful zoom capabilities, panning and tilting and working even in adverse weather conditions. Power requirements were met with solar panels deployed at each tower location.
When the system finally went online, Corbett managers were pleasantly surprised with the outcome. The network of cameras covered an area of about 300 sq. km, tracking movements of any object over 20 kg body weight, and thus capable of detecting human movements as well as that of wild animals. Any kind of suspicious movement generated alerts, which were forwarded to field stations in the Reserve for appropriate action.
E-Eye also generated some fantastic images of various wild animals doing their own things but, more importantly, helped generate several alerts about human activity. Each of these alerts was responded to at the field level by Rapid Response Teams and periodically verified by senior officials, making sure that the integrity of such information was maintained. This was a direct deterrent on criminal activity. People illegally entering the forests could expect a team of field staff to swoop in on them shortly; it served as a huge psychological barrier for criminals. They were jittery of being tracked down and dealt with. This also boosted the confidence of the field staff. And, soon enough, a criminal with a proven track record in the Reserve area tried to damage one of the camera towers! He was caught on camera vandalising, quickly arrested and dealt with.
With an estimated initial cost of around Rs 3.5 crore, though, E-Eye didn’t come cheap. The hardware also needed periodic maintenance and upgrading, even the software required regular upgrades. This involved additional costs. The results though were very satisfactory, encouraging the NTCA to introduce it in Kaziranga Tiger Reserve where rhino poaching is a daily challenge. E-Eye is an excellent example of how scientific tools can be leveraged to strengthen field level protection. True, it is no substitute for traditional foot patrolling but surely can complement it. The fact that cameras keep a 24/7 vigil, regardless of weather conditions, helped monitor larger areas and deploy scarce human resource more strategically. Further, the system had huge potential for exploitation given the high volume of data it generated. It could monitor potential human-wildlife conflict, as also when elephants and tigers moved outside the reserve, alerting villagers of such movements, and with the Rapid Response teams averting any untoward incidents. E-Eye has opened up possibilities; with its unwavering eye, tigers, elephants, rhinos and other endangered animals can now breathe easy and have a run of their habitat!
The writer, Sudhansu Mohanty, is an acclaimed author and, among other assignments, also worked as Additional Secretary & Financial Adviser to the Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change.
This article is based on his experiences during this stint, and is the first installment in his 7-part Sunday Feature series about Tiger Reserves.
Tweet at Sudhansu: @MohantyMohanti
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