For decades, tiger biologists have dreamt of a ‘smart’ camera alerting system capable of detecting tigers on the prowl and sending images of only tigers and poachers instantly to a cell phone. Whether at dawn, dusk or midnight, through monsoon rains or stifling heat, the remote unit would function 24/7 with long battery life to detect and monitor tigers occupying buffer areas close to villages and protect both the tigers and the villagers.
Last year, the Global Tiger Forum, the National Tiger Conservation Authority and RESOLVE partnered with Clemson University to test conservation technology: TrailGuard AI, a camera-alert system powered by artificial intelligence (AI) that remains hidden from poachers while detecting wild tigers and transmits real-time images to the cell phones and computers of concerned entities like park rangers.
Since May 2022, TrailGuard AI has been placed in and around five tiger reserves in sections of two of the most productive tiger landscapes in the world: the Kanha-Pench landscape in Madhya Pradesh, and the Terai-Arc landscape in north India and overlapping into lowland Nepal. The technology proved its worth almost immediately, detecting tigers moving very close to villages and using the same trails as wildlife poachers. The elapsed time from the motion sensor triggered by the passing tiger, to running the AI algorithm, to transmission to the cell network, Internet and designated authorities is less than 30 seconds, making this technology a true alerting system. To complete the wish list, using cellular communication TrailGuard AI can transmit more than 2,500 images on a single battery charge. In short, the tiger biologists’ dreams have come true.
Now, these results are made widely available by Clemson wildlife conservation students and co-authored by industry leaders in the peer-reviewed journal, BioScience, covering the first few months of the field deployment: Mitigating Human-Wildlife Conflict and Monitoring Endangered Tigers Using a Real-time Camera-Based Alert System.
Clemson tigers saving tigers
Clemson post-doctoral researcher, Jeremy Dertien, Ph.D., and Clemson Ph.D. candidate, Hrishita Negi, took part in the deployment, testing and field training of TrailGuard AI.
“Leading the deployment of TrailGuard AI in the Kanha-Pench corridor has been an immense privilege as this technology has the real potential to be game-changer for two of the world’s biggest wildlife conservation issues: poaching and human-wildlife conflict,” said Dertien.
After the deployment and testing, Negi and Dertien held workshops within the local communities showing how TrailGuard AI could alert villagers gathering firewood in the forests or lingering in multi-use areas to the presence of tigers.
“Integrating communities is essential for co-existence to work and we have gained valuable experience in explaining the technology and listening to how to improve their safety when using the buffer zone,” explained Negi.
“Conserving wild tigers is one of the last, great challenges we face,” said Rob Baldwin, Ph.D., professor of conservation who led Clemson’s involvement in the study. “Massive predators living in close proximity to millions of people means we need to deploy the latest technologies to intervene before there are serious conflicts.”
The project is enthusiastically supported by Tigers United, a Clemson-initiated consortium of U.S.-based, land-grant universities —Clemson, Auburn, Louisiana State, and University of Missouri—who cherish tigers as their mascot.
Indian officials praise technology
The wished-for technology could not come at a more important juncture. Announced this year, India has managed to double its wild tiger population over the past 12 years – perhaps the greatest conservation success story in the first half of the 21st century. Seventy percent of the world’s tigers occur in India, but 40% of that total are found in populations between protected areas. In fact, many tigers pass their entire lives completely outside India’s 53 designated tiger reserves. The potential for conflict with communities that live along the borders or in these corridors and rely on the multi-use buffer areas for livestock grazing is a cause of concern and can result in tigers frequently killing livestock or, in rare occasions, attacking humans, leading to retaliation by villagers. From this scenario emerges the major wildlife challenge of our time: how can the recovery of endangered large mammal populations like tigers continue, bolstered by the introduction of new technologies, enabling policies and innovative community–driven programs that promote their coexistence in human-dominated landscapes?
While tiger numbers are in ascendance in India, Nepal, and Bhutan, they are declining in much of the rest of the range. Landscape-scale conservation is the most effective way to save area-sensitive, wide-ranging top predators like tigers. The deployment centered on Kanha-Pench, the most important of the 76 Tiger Conservation Landscapes in this predator’s range. The twin anchors of this landscape, Kanha National Park and Pench National Park, and their surrounding habitats, hold more than 500 tigers, the most anywhere. The co-authors of the TrailGuard study are some of the world’s leading experts on tigers and tiger conservation.
“I am glad to see the technology working so well. It holds great promise,” said H.S. Negi, Ph.D., former additional chief of wildlife in Madhya Pradesh and senior advisor to both the Global Tiger Forum and Nightjar, the company that produces the TrailGuard system.
“Technology has come as a final destination for dealing with tiger management,” commented Ramesh Krishnamurthy, Ph.D., landscape ecologist and professor, Wildlife Institute of India. “It supplies the support system for dealing with human-tiger conflict and enables forest management to offset limitations to do with manpower, and human resources.”
“Seeing is believing. Besides the real-time transmissions of conflict-prone wildlife species, TrailGuard AI offers park protection that led to the detection and arrest of poachers in Dudhwa,” said Sanjay Kumar Pathak, former field director, Dudhwa Tiger Reserve.
Research in Indian tiger reserves also shows that tiger population recovery depends heavily on prey populations. Being able to monitor deer, Indian bison and wild boar is vital information to predict recovery.
“Saving tigers requires effective monitoring of the wild population and the prey base,” commented Rajesh Gopal, Ph.D., secretary general, Global Tiger Forum. “TrailGuard AI gives managers that tool. TrailGuard AI detects a wide range of species important to Asian wildlife managers, especially when dealing with human-tiger interface areas. The Global Tiger Forum is committed to foster new technology for furthering the cause.”
The TrailGuard AI team has big ambitions. Now being manufactured in India by VVDN, India’s largest electronics engineering and manufacturing company, TrailGuard is the first AI-based camera-alert system technology designed by biologists for field biologists and conservationists.
“We follow the guidelines of the government’s directive to “Make in India,” noted Piyush Yadav, lead engineer and lead of Nightjar. “We are trying to make our technology long-lasting and affordable, to be used by Indian conservationists to protect people and wildlife. But saving tigers is the responsibility of the whole world. That’s why we have supported this project and want to help scale the technology to save tigers and endangered wildlife everywhere.”
The Global Tiger Forum (GTF) is an international, inter-governmental body exclusively set up for the conservation of tigers in the wild in the range countries. The forum is working with range country governments, conservation organizations, and research/academic institutes across the globe for utilizing co-operative policies, evolving common approaches, providing technical expertise, developing scientific modules and other appropriate conservation programs.
Contact: Mohnish Kapoor, email@example.com
The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) is a statutory body under India’s Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change. Its mandate to strengthen tiger conservation in the country by retaining an oversight through advisories/normative guidelines, based on appraisal of tiger status, ongoing conservation initiatives and recommendations of specially constituted Committees. NTCA has been at the forefront of tiger conservation work in India. Its work domain extends from on-the-ground protection initiatives to science-based monitoring of tigers and their habitat using latest technological tools, independent assessment of tiger reserves with MEE framework, financial and technical support to tiger reserves, creating inviolate space for wildlife while ensuring community development to international co-operation are the few thrust areas of NTCA.
Clemson University, a leading public research institution in South Carolina, USA, initiated the Tigers United University Consortium with three other institutions — Auburn University, Louisiana State University and The University of Missouri. Through the consortium, the four universities combine their expertise in academic disciplines important to tiger conservation and protection—wildlife management, engineering, environmental science, conservation social science, veterinary medicine, communications and eco-tourism, to name a few. With more than one university approaching the problem, the odds of success increase.
Contact: Brett Wright, firstname.lastname@example.org
RESOLVE is a Washington, DC-based non-profit organization that forges sustainable solutions to critical environmental, social, and health, challenges by creating innovative partnerships where they are least likely and most needed. RESOLVE’s Biodiversity and Wildlife Solutions Program tackles the most pressing conservation problems of our time – the approaching extinction of endangered wildlife and threats to habitats, including tropical forests where most of the world’s species reside – through technological innovation, ambitious global agreements, and targeted land protection.
Contact: Eric Dinerstein, email@example.com
Nightjar LLC (Nightjar) is a limited liability social benefit company organized and funded to achieve the social and environmental objectives of developing durable, long-lasting, high technology devices—including the trademarked TrailGuard AI—to facilitate protection and monitoring of endangered species, reducing human-wildlife conflict, and to stop wildlife poaching and illegal logging. Nightjar emerged from the Biodiversity and Wildlife Solutions program at RESOLVE Inc. (RESOLVE), which is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization.
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