On a wild track
Wildlife protection and conservation in India have hugely benefitted from the advancements in technology. Herpetologist and conservationist Nirmal Ulhas Kulkarni explains how scientific innovations are ensuring the tracking of species and aiding in the fight against poachers
The fields of ecology and biodiversity have come a long way in India in the last few decades. They have seen a visible transformation from a largely observational, field-related exercise to a blend of various subjects. Conservation biology has gained immensely from major scientific advancements, ranging from molecular genetic tools to space technology. Information on ecological aspects of several species that could not be obtained earlier due to their cryptic nature or rarity is now easily accessible through these cutting-edge techniques. Such information is useful in conservation planning with respect to current actions required and future directions to be taken.
One of the first cases of technological intervention in Indian wildlife conservation was in the late 1990s at Nagarhole Tiger Reserve, Karnataka, to monitor large cats under the guidance of noted conservation zoologist and biologist Dr Ulhas Karanth. In the early 1990s, Dr Karanth and his team began long-term experiments with the help of camera traps to estimate the abundance of tigers in the Nagarhole Tiger Reserve. This was the first time in India that a wildlife population was being sampled in a systematic and laborious manner with a defined grid system. Ever since then, camera traps have been consistently deployed for an array of wildlife monitoring purposes in behavioural and ecological studies. Today, new-age heat and movement sensor camera traps that can record images and videos in low light as well as conserve battery power have become tools of necessity for wildlife managers as well as conservation scientists across the country. Camera trap exercises result in capturing data that are used to estimate population size, species richness, site occupancy or relative abundance indices among other ecology-based studies. Currently, almost every wildlife habitat and wilderness area in India is under some form of camera trapping exercise, be it to assess fish fauna associated with seagrasses in the islands of Havelock and Henry Lawrence in Andaman and Nicobar Islands; monitor and conserve wild animals, including leopards, in the forest reserve of Jhalana in Jaipur, Rajasthan; track movements of the elusive snow leopards in the farthest reaches of the Himalayas or to study the distribution and habitat patterns of the Asiatic black bear in the Senchal Wildlife Sanctuary located in Darjeeling, West Bengal.
Another use of high-end technology deployed in wildlife research leading to conservation is a radio telemetry device. The use of tracking collars is, today, one of the most common methods of monitoring large mammals in India. The list includes tigers, elephants, rhinos and a host of other animals. Radio tracking involves fitting the study animal with a radio collar or a radio device that emits signals. While these collars are designed to minimise impact on the animals’ behaviour and to maximise their detectability, there are rigorous checks that are in place to ensure that the target species are not harmed by this method of study. Most radio telemetry studies are structured on conservation and ecology-based modules that are required to understand animal behaviour, including conflict, human-wildlife interactions, wildlife diseases and habitat range, size etc. One of the first projects to use radio telemetry of king cobras was in Karnataka’s Agumbe settlement, led by noted herpetologist Romulus Whitaker, of the Agumbe Rainforest Research Station. In the current times, a project is being undertaken for arresting elephant deaths due to train collisions in north West Bengal. The project is a collaboration between the West Bengal Forest Department, Wildlife Institute of India (WII), Central Scientific Instruments Organisation (CSIO), Chandigarh, and the Ear to the Wild Foundation. The project includes developing sensors aimed to detect elephant movement on railway tracks so that speeding trains can be alerted to slow down and avoid unnecessary deaths of Asian elephants. Once this project is successful, the deployment of high-end sensor technology, coupled with satellite connectivity and solar powered devices, will signal a new beginning for India’s human-wildlife conflict mitigation measures. India is on the right path here and results will follow soon.
All species are essentially spatial communities and exhibit competitive behaviour when it comes to sharing their physical space and resources. Territorialisation of species and their behaviour need a strong mapping and analysis of demographics layered over the geographical and physiographical patterns and processes. Monitoring and mapping of this data over regional and temporal scales offer insights into population density, distribution, spatial heterogeneity and movement of the species, and its relation to the geographical aspects of habitats and large-scale environmental changes. Thus, spatial ecology and Geographic Information System (GIS) or remote sensing have become vital tools in mapping change in the fields of ecology and conservation.
Molecular ecology and conservation genetics have contributed immensely to unravelling patterns and understanding the processes behind species’ histories and geographic distributions. Due to strong and deep synergy between bio-technology and information technology in recent times, India’s anti-wildlife crime agencies now have a strong base to identify and nail poachers and wildlife crime syndicates. Modern science-based technological breakthroughs have been made simpler and accurate with the introduction of DNA tests. Stellar contributions in this regard have been of Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) and Dehradun-based Wildlife Institute of India (WII), who have developed a first-of-its-kind procedure to identify species of the animal from parts that have been confiscated. Today, wildlife investigators need just a tiny piece of flesh, a drop of blood, a bunch of hair or a piece of bone, etc. for a test and results are available in record time. These DNA tests bypass the hurdles of poorly-preserved animal samples and even the quantity of samples. Scientists are now able to isolate the unique signature in the DNA fragment of the animal and quickly match it with the rapidly-expanding database of signatures from the animal world. The WII already has a signature bank of about 2,000 known animal species, which is expanding every year.
In 2010, the Indian government’s National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) launched the Monitoring System for Tigers: Intensive Protection and Ecological Status (M-StrIPES), a software-based monitoring system, across Indian tiger reserves. The primary objective of this cutting-edge software system is to strengthen patrolling and surveillance of India’s National Animal, the Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris/ Panthera tigris tigris). Field staff in tiger reserves are equipped with handheld Global Positioning System (GPS) devices to capture data relating to tiger sightings, deaths, wildlife crime and ecological observations, while patrolling in their respective beats and ranges. The software system maps the patrol routes of forest guards and all resulting data is centralised and analysed in a geographic information system (GIS). This provides real-time information for wildlife managers to effectively enhance protection as well as habitat management measures and ensure long-term conservation of sensitive large cat habitats. An additional outcome is the evaluative impact of human pressures, including tourism, encroachment and cattle grazing, in the respective target areas.
Introduction of molecular studies (PCR based DNA sequencing) in India provided a platform for a non-invasive method of sampling, identifying and maintaining the identity of the species facilitating conservation efforts. PCR-based molecular studies offers an avenue for analysing damaged and degraded samples, including fossils, which helps in connecting the past and the present species, which, in turn, prioritise the conservation efforts of the species in the endangered list. With the introduction of mitochondrial DNA barcoding technique in India, the DNA barcode library is being prepared that will help scientists, researchers and conservation managers in easy identification of the species, including morphologically-cryptic ones. DNA-based phylogenetic studies provide better clarity among the relationship between the sister species, which is crucial for understanding the species and interspecies when it comes to relocating them from their habitat to new areas or their reintroduction to their native abode. The array of methods and tools being used today in Indian forests to protect wild animals prove that the field of conservation and ecology advances, with the advent of technology, has matured as a discipline over the last few years in the country. These measures supported by positive policy changes by the government are helping shape India’s conservation strategies for the new millennium.