The man–who saved over 600 `dancing’ bears from the Lambaani community while giving them an alternate source of living, helped establish eight rescue and rehab centres for wild animals across India, fenced Corbett National Park with solar-powered electric fencing to prevent poaching and crop-raiding and undertook many more campaigns to save wildlife–is on a marathon for the last 23 years. At this juncture where the focus has shifted to the critical changing landscape and declining wildlife world over, Kartick Satyanarayan, co-founder and CEO of Wildlife SOS, stresses on the use of technology to understand animals’ changing behaviour with climate change and to save them from poaching.
Q. UN’s SGD 15–Life on Land demands states to take urgent and significant action to reduce degradation of natural habitats, halt loss of biodiversity, prevent extinction of threatened species, action to end poaching and traffic, etc. In what ways and how many ways has India worked towards achieving any of these?
Human activities have resulted in an unprecedented rate of change in landscapes, both directly due to agriculture and industry, and indirectly due to climate change. Animals are faced with the enormous challenge of adapting to this fast pace of change and studying their behaviour allows us to understand whether they are adapting successfully or not.
Across India’s diverse wild lands, management authorities are using data-driven solutions to enhance anti-poaching capacity to allow endangered populations to recover from previous, and current, crises. Advanced conservation tools for documenting movement ecology and behaviour of wildlife are being introduced. Most importantly, community-level interventions to explore different economic opportunities that secure rather than destroy biodiversity are being implemented.
Q. The ecological zoning around Bannerghatta National Park-Bengaluru, is reducing. Indian parks are at a constant threat from urbanisation. Does the AWBI have no control over policy making related to urban land use to stop impacting biodiversity around parks?
Landscape approaches, which provide principles, guidelines and tools for adaptive conservation at local scales, hold potential to help make the change that’s needed. This will need cooperation and better coordination among civic bodies, state animal welfare boards, AWBI, state forest departments, community representatives and other stakeholders.
Q. Data reveals that the numbers of poaching reports, wildlife crimes have increased to 52% as of 2017. What do you assess as the reasons for this increase or do you see the reportage of events increasing due to raised awareness?
The motivating factor for wildlife trade is the need to make quick money for poverty ridden communities. As species are poached and illegally harvested at increasingly unsustainable levels, wildlife crime has become the fourth most lucrative illegal business after narcotics, human trafficking and weapons. Combating illegal wildlife trade is not just about saving animals from going extinct but also promoting economic development, rule of the law and public health as wildlife trafficking is linked with corruption, violence, fraud, smuggling, weapons trafficking, health violations and drug trafficking. Preserving wildlife in a mega-diverse country like India continues to be a big challenge and responsibility, and India needs to work on promoting multidisciplinary intelligence led law enforcement to tackle this issue.
Q. With use of technology and AI in all spaces, do you see its use in protecting wildlife in the forests or their natural habitats?
The conservation sector needs curiosity, innovation, passion and skill set. Conservation concerns are typically addressed with more traditional, biological and ecological techniques, such as wildlife population monitoring and response to human disturbance. While many wildlife species are being targeted by poachers to the point where there’s a huge decrease in the population, AI and machine learning can be used for wildlife security. One of the very famous PAWS (Protection Assistant for Wildlife Security) projects uses machine learning to predict where the poachers may strike. Huge amounts of data on previous poaching incidents and patrolling activities can be gathered and with the help of various machine learning techniques, they can be used to predict the next poaching activity or where the poacher will strike next. Similarly, the best routes for patrolling can be determined (different patrol routes and their probabilities determine the best strategy with the highest probability).
There is a need for smart patrols as the poachers have gone hi-tech, too. Surveillance drones that fly silently in the air can be used to locate poachers at night. These drones can be launched in predetermined threat areas and rangers can be deployed somewhere nearby. In case a poacher is spotted, the location information can be sent in real time to the rangers to help rescue the animals.
Drones also help in collecting other data like animal behaviour, animal count, weather conditions, etc. Big Data Analytics/Neural Networks/ Object Recognition in images can then be used to get animal count/analyse behaviour of different species/monitor ecosystems to make predictions with high accuracy. This helps reduce fieldwork and image processing time.
Recording equipment can be installed in the areas and acoustic activity data can be used to measure movements of wildlife and how they respond to climate change. The amount of data gathered can be really enormous and AI can be leveraged here to effectively gather and analyse such information which will save time, cost and operate in real time.
Q. Against the backdrop of the recent Bandipur forest fire massacre, it may be recalled that forest fires are common and happen almost every year with the onset of summer. Why do you think these cannot be controlled easily? Are the state forest departments not adept in controlling or preventing such catastrophes?
A. Forest officials are quite active about fire prevention and controlling fires. They frequently conduct fire drills, fire lines, remove dry leaves and grasses and take necessary steps to prevent forest fires. But the most important fact that one must admit is that no forest department of any state in our country gets as much budgetary allocation and resources as commerce departments. They are challenged with very minimal staff on the ground. Imagine four or six forest guards guarding 100 sq.km of forests! To add to their misery, they are often ill-equipped to handle any emergency within the forest. And they have to protect large swathes of natural open wealth. Forests cannot be fenced because animals depend on going in and out of different forest ranges during different times of the year.
The officials in Bandipur have tried to protect the animals, forest and local villagers to the best of their ability. Sometimes, the locals light a fire to get the grass for their livestock animals and sometimes there are mischief mongers who light up a fire in the middle of the forest too. You can neither find out who did it nor can the officials blame it fully on the locals. But the locals must not be so selfish.
Q. Why is it taking time to frame the Act on banning circus animals, even after a gap of a month after the window was closed for seeking suggestions on the draft?
Amendments in Acts need inputs from multiple stakeholder agencies in order to address on-the-ground realities which are increasingly becoming complex. It’s important to have participation not just from central agencies but also local conservation leaders in order to have a comprehensive solution in place.
Q. What is your observation and perspective about sports like Jallikattu and why does banning such a sport become a political and cultural issue more than understanding what the animals undergo?
As we have not been directly associated with the Jallikattu issue, we wouldn’t be in the best position to comment on the same.
About Kartick Satyanarayan
Kartick Satyanarayan, co-founder and chairman of Wildlife SOS, Delhi, was the key person behind rescuing over 600 `dancing’ bears from the Lambaani community which abused the animals for a living, while giving them alternate avenues to thrive. He is known as the Sloth Bear expert and is also member of the IUCN Bear Specialist Group. He is also a member of the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau, Central Zoo Authority Captive Elephant Evaluation Committee and was a member of the Zoo Authority of India (2007-2015).
Kartick was an animal welfare consultant to Brooke Hospital for Animals (UK), with BBC teams in still and video film shooting and editing, trained in SPARKS software protocol for Wild Animal Stud Book Management (Kohner, Germany) and a solar-powered electric fencing specialist trained in New Zealand. He has designed effective fencing solutions to prevent poaching and crop-raiding in the man-animal conflict zone of Corbett National Park. Kartick has to his credit many awards including the Indira Gandhi Paryavaran Puraskar (2010), first Planman Media award for Environmental Activism (2009), The Elisabeth Lewyt Award for Disaster Management and Planning and the Karamveer Puraskar of the ICongo Civil Society (2009). He was recently awarded the Maharana Udai Singh Award too.