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Can Big Data Save The Last Of India's Wild Tigers?


THE HUFFINGTON POST
18 January 2015

Ensia | Roger Drouin
This story originally appeared on Ensia.

Traveling in small, nomadic groups, carrying knives, axes and steel traps, tiger poachers in India have long held advantages over those trying to protect the big cats. The poachers, motivated mainly by demand for tiger bones used in traditional medicine in China, return every two to three years to places where they know “every stream and rocky outcrop” and set traps along tigers’ pathways or near watering holes, says Belinda Wright, executive director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India. They are seldom caught.

“They have unbelievable knowledge and jungle craft,” Wright says. “They will use every trick in the book.”

But a study published last August by Wright, ecologist Koustubh Sharma and colleagues could help turn the tide against tiger poaching in India, home to more than half of the tiger’s global wild population.

The study, published in the journal Biological Conservation, applied a new method to estimate the probability of occurrence and detection of tiger crime in various areas of India, then used it to identify 73 key “hot spots” with high likelihood of tiger poaching and trafficking in tiger parts. According to the authors, it could lead to more efficient anti-poaching efforts by giving conservationists, enforcement officials and forest rangers working to save the tigers the ability to home in on where enforcement is needed most and thus improve the odds of saving India’s imperiled national animal.

Over the past few years, Sharma, a senior regional ecologist with Snow Leopard Trust and scientist with Nature Conservation Foundation, and his team wrote computer code and analyzed 25,000 data points — collected since 1972 across 605 districts — on wildlife poaching crimes, including locations of confirmed tiger poaching instances and sites where tiger parts had been seized. “It’s such a huge dataset that whenever I would run the analysis cycle, it would take 20 to 25 minutes for each model,” Sharma says.

“An intelligence network is the most crucial step in curbing tiger and wildlife crime,” says Wright. More intelligence means being able to better place informers on the ground and use cell phone interceptions. It also means knowing where to target field patrols and forest ranger activities. Of utmost importance, Sharma says, is knowing where crime patterns have changed as poachers’ tactics change. That’s why researchers worked to formulate modeling that could be updated regularly.


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