In the remote Gadchiroli district in eastern Maharashtra, residents curiously look up to the sky, as quadcopters, commonly known as drones, hover over their villages and surrounding forests. The drones could perhaps be a solution to reducing human-animal conflict in the region as residents here are being met with a new challenge of coexisting with tigers and elephants migrating to Gadchiroli’s forests from neighbouring districts.
These aerial photography systems, along with CCTV cameras and other technological-oriented solutions have been adopted by the Maharashtra Forest Department to track elephants and tigers and monitor whether they are coming close to the human settlements.
The forest department is working on a camera-based mechanism to alert forest staff and village residents if an animal ventures near the villages or farms and prevent any encounters between humans and the elephants or tigers.
The forest department claimed that the use of drones to monitor elephant movement was happening for the first time in India. While drones have been used for tiger conservation in different parts of the country in recent years, the forest department claims that it is the first time drones are being used to monitor elephant movement.
Tiger, elephants numbers rise
The 14,412 square kilometre Gadchiroli district is covered with dense forests and has rich biodiversity. About three decades ago, tiger numbers dropped significantly owing to conflict in the tribal-dominated region, associated with the rise of the Maoist (earlier Naxalite) movement as well as on account of poaching.
There were sporadic reports about the presence of a tiger or two in Gadchiroli about a decade ago, but these remained ignored and undocumented. But the big cat’s presence came to limelight when a tigress killed two people in Ravi village in 2017. Since then, the number of tigers has continued to go up, with the current population estimated to be between 25 and 32.
The forest department reckons that a major reason for an increase in tiger numbers in Gadchiroli is the migration of tigers from the adjoining Brahmapuri division of Chandrapur district, which has become crowded with the influx of tigers from the nearest tiger reserve, the Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve.
Other than tigers, a few elephants from the neighbouring state of Chhattisgarh have been recorded crossing into Gadchiroli in recent years. Usually, the jumbo visitors did not stay more than a day or two and would return to Chhattisgarh.
However, about a year ago, in October 2021, a herd of 18-22 wild elephants crossed over to Maharashtra and roamed inside Gadchiroli forests for over four months, after which they went back to Chhattisgarh. However, this year, the same herd with 23 elephants has returned and recorded to be exploring new areas.
As Chhattisgarh’s forests have been impacted for various reason,s including mining, the elephants venture to Gadchiroli where there is abundant food in the form of green bamboo leaves, green grass, chironji (Cuddapah almond/Buchanania lanzan), as well as undisturbed water sources.
The movement of the elephants has raised speculations about whether they will make the Gadchiroli forest a permanent habitat. It has also raised concerns about increased chances of human-elephant conflict since the people of Gadchiroli are not accustomed to living alongside elephants.
Villages that see potential human-elephant conflict have asked the forest department to ensure that the pachyderms do not come inside the human habitats. Bhimrao Vaidya, a farmer from Dadapur village, said “It is fine if farms are damaged since we will be compensated. However, it will be a big disaster if elephants come inside our village. They can destruct our houses and even kill us.”
Similar calls are being made to capture the “conflict tigers” and stop tigers from coming near villages or farms. One tiger named CT 1 has killed over 10 people so far. Local legislator Krushna Gajbe said, “Farmers and villagers are under tremendous tension due to tigers. How will they survive if they do not step out of their houses? We want the forest department to capture them since human lives are more important. Else, they should make arrangements to stop such attacks.”
Forest department eye on elephants
According to forest officials, the movement of elephants can be monitored by human patrol only during the day. Given that there are limitations and risks to human patrolling, the department decided to use drones with thermal cameras to monitor elephant movement near villages.
Sunil Limaye, Principal Chief Conservator of Forest (Wildlife), told Mongabay-India, “We do not want elephants to enter villages but we do not want them to be disturbed or injured either. So we are using drones to keep a watch on them when they are near villages or surrounding forests. The thermal cameras help us know their location, their movement, their behaviour and what they are eating. When they come close to the village, we know their composition and movement. We just shoo them away. The drones with thermal cameras have proved very beneficial during the night.”
Volunteers from Pune-based RESQ Charitable Trust operate drones while a team from the West Bengal-based Stripes and Green Earth (SAGE) Foundation drive elephants away using special techniques.
Neha Panchamia, Founder and President of RESQ, said drones and camera imaging helps build trust among villagers. “People keep complaining about a wild animal in bushes or forest even if it has gone or was never there. So if you show them live footage or images captured using drones, they become relaxed and relieved that no wild animal is there.”
The forest department, based on the residents’ requests, is working on capturing the tigers that have reported to attack humans. At the same time, it is also leveraging technology and digital tools to track the tigers.
Dhananjay Waybhase, Deputy Conservator of Forest (Wadsa Division), said “We have already installed solar-powered CCTV cameras inside the forest to analyse tigers’ movement. However, they do not work at night. So we are trying to build an improvised thermal camera system that will run on portable batteries and be connected to the internet through wireless dongles. They will send alerts when any movement is captured.”
Such cameras will be installed along village roads and farms. “This will alert villagers, who then can stay away from the areas where a tiger is present. Even attacks on cattle can be stopped. It will also help us capture the tiger if problematic,” Waybhase said.
While the RESQ team is currently operating the drones in Gadchiroli forest, the ground staff of the forest department is also being trained for this, said Limaye.
“The CT 1 tiger is very elusive. But we tracked him using a drone and got a good picture of him. The experiences so far have encouraged us to use drones and cameras for regular monitoring of tigers and elephants,” Limaye said. “We have already bought a few drones and our forest staff has started using them. Every forest range where conflict is reported will have such drones. Besides their usefulness in tracking wild animals, these drones will ensure our forest staff and villagers are safe.”
While there has been excitement among conservationists about the adoption of technology, it can have negative repercussions if not used with caution, said Milind Umare, Honourary Wildlife Warden of Gadchiroli.
“Gadchiroli still has the presence of Maoists. It can become risky if they assumed drones to be an exercise to track them in the name of wildlife monitoring. The frontline workers such as guards or even villagers can get killed,” Umare warned.
Umare also raised concerns about flying drones at a very low height. “This can irritate tigers and elephants, which can prove counterproductive. Also, the forest department must ensure that sensitive information about rare wildlife or plant species gathered through drones does not get leaked.”
This article was first published on Mongabay.