International Tiger Day: Big Data for Big Cats

International Tiger Day: Big Data for Big Cats

Global trends of urbanization, industrialization, agricultural expansion, and rapid development of infrastructure have led to massive change in land use. This has deeply impacted many bio-diverse ecosystem, through conversion and fragmentation of biodiversity rich forest ecosystems, threatening the existence of various species of flora and fauna. Tropical forests which are mostly in the developing countries of the world, and believed to host half of all the biodiversity known to man-kind are severely threatened from deforestation, and degradation, thereby threatening the survival of communities-particularly the vulnerable sections, who are directly dependent on the ecosystem services for their livelihood.

In a closely interconnected system as in the case of natural ecosystems, harnessing the insight provided by big data and supportive technologies is critical for developing conservation programs or policies. Since, changes are occurring over vast areas, in timeframes beyond everyday human perception, it is often hard to predict impact catastrophe strikes. Therefore, creating frameworks that can seamlessly link and integrate multifarious data to support decision-making is imperative.

Tigers have long been a focal point of conservation efforts in India and around the globe. And for good reason. As a top carnivore, tigers play a pivotal role in ensuring the health of the ecosystems they occupy, by structuring the communities. Further the ecosystems they occupy provide vital services to human societies that include carbon sequestration, hydrological balance, protection from natural disasters, soil erosion, pollination services, medicinal plan genetic diversity and bioprospecting among others. Tourism value of tiger habitats, although run into billions of dollars and contribute to local economies are still highly under-valued.

As commemoration of International Tiger Day, I decided to speak with my teammates and pen down my thoughts about how big data and data science can be used in tiger conservation. Although this does not seem to be a discussion point in mainstream media, I believe it is key to charting a roadmap for a successful conservation campaign.

Computer-aided models that integrates field research data with feed provided by remote-sensing GIS technologies can help identify priority sites for conservation efforts. The models developed by using the population data of tigers help to monitor and evaluate the impact of conservation programs and policies.

On field, for collecting data, camera traps, equipped with motion sensors triggered by the movement of animals within their field of view, could be installed in remote locations across large expanses. These can provide real-time data on the presence of tigers and its activity. A series of computer scripts and models will help identify the inter-relations within this dataset with high accuracy, thereby validating or nullifying various inferences. Such analyses can allow us to identify conservation ‘hotspots’ that may need immediate intervention, key to preserving tiger population from extinction. In other words, it helps to understand those ‘vital signs’ threatening their existence, and thereby informing processes for policy tweaking and formulation. An analytics system including a project dashboard and visual tool for user-friendly, data-driven insights can be created for various stakeholders.

In an era of ‘Smart Cities’, it is imperative to create ‘Smart Bioreserves’- one that is informed by data, so as to preserve and perpetuate the ecological balance of the planet.

While big data analytics may have many positive externalities at scale, it is important to remain conscious that when data is accessed by the wrong audience, it becomes vulnerable to misuse. In the case of tiger conservation, easy access to data on population distribution, movement and behavior, by poachers could ease poaching, threatening the very species that we intend to protect.

It is now a foregone conclusion that the future of tiger conservation depends on judicious land use planning-zoning-of core wildlife habitat, buffer zones, critical corridors for wildlife and limiting human activity in high value conservation areas. It is prudent for development programs to recognize and respects principles of sustainability. But despite the deluge of new information about biodiversity and its distribution, big data is yet to make a mark on conservation efforts. I hope this changes soon, especially in light of the global awareness movement that is part of International Tiger Day.


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Kiran Rajashekariah
Kiran specialises in advising clients on strategic planning, organizational transformation and performance management on sustainability issues.