On a gloomy Wednesday morning some 170 kilometers from Nagpur at the Pench Forest area, an area which is the original setting of Rudyard Kipling’s most famous work, The Jungle Book, about 30 forest officials are planning a mission which will help them fight a mafia. In the core areas of Pench tiger reserve, a mafia has been fishing illegally for many years now.
It is crucial that officials succeed this time, because little else seems to be working against the poachers. “It was tough to track their movements. And they attacked our guards,” Srinivasa Reddy, field director and chief conservator of forests, Pench Tiger Reserve told FactorDaily.
The Pench Tiger Reserve has been under constant security risk. Incidents of fishing (banned by the supreme court in 2004) have increased and the mafia has become bolder, sometimes even retaliating with crude bombs.
The mission is to track the movement and pattern of the mafia and this time around, the forest guards have gone high tech. That afternoon, the plan was to learn how to use a high grade drone (DJI Phantom) to track the movement of their targets, without having to get close to them.
A year ago, Reddy had pressed ahead with an idea of using drones to track and monitor the pattern of fishermen and also get aerial photographs of the forest.
Prakash Matada, a renowned wildlife filmmaker and an expert drone pilot, had travelled to Pench to train the officials. “Authorities have limited resources to catch poachers and disrupt the illegal trading and drones can be very effective,” says Matada.
In the three days that followed, Matada trained the guards on the nuances of flying drones such as dynamics, simulations, control, common mistakes to avoid and creating waypoints. Waypoints are reference points in a physical space that help navigation.
“During the training, the guards even came up with other possible usage of drones in forest conservation,” said Matada.
Drones, GPS maps and mobile phones have made the guards more nimble. Officials got the aerial shots and GPS backed markings of water bodies around core tiger reserve and also the exact number of boats entering the forest, men on it and their hideouts.
The data is then used by forest rangers to intercept the fishermen. “It helps us make a strategy after estimating the strength of the fishermen,” said Reddy.
To be sure, there has been no significant reduction in illegal fishing yet, but drones have helped the department understand the pattern and scale of illegal fishing in the area. Reddy estimates that about Rs 80 cr worth of fish is being netted in the area every year.
“The illegal fishing operatives are aware that they are being watched. That itself will stop them,” said Reddy.
Pench Tiger reserve currently owns a single DJI (quadcopter) drone. The drone can only fly 15-20 minutes at a stretch, and Reddy feels that drones could be much more effective if they could fly longer. “We could think about procuring more and use it extensively only if it had long flying hours,” said Reddy.
Matada has been using drones to document several conservation projects across southern India and to identify ecological imbalances, man animal conflict and forest encroachment.
For now, high powered drones with advanced sensors may be too expensive for conservation projects but officials have barely scratched the surface.