The next time you’re heading to the tiger reserves in Ranthambhore or Bandhavgarh, see TigerNation.org, a six-month-old website that gives you something of a real-time experience of the forests and their tigers. Tiger Nation has crisply and imaginatively written “life stories” of the tigers, supplemented with photos and video clips, some uploaded by visitors like you with their DSLRs and smartphones; “alerts” on recent sightings and a Google Maps feature that allows you to zoom in on the tigers’ location (not in real-time, of course, as that would allow misuse), besides information on topography, history, and the flora and fauna — in short, everything to help make the most of your visit.
“It’s like BBC TV’s Big Cat Diary, but online,” says wildlife conservationist Amit Sankhala, director and spokesperson of Tiger Nation. “It’s built to be fun, informative and interactive, driven by anyone who loves wildlife and tigers.”
But while reaching out to wildlife lovers and casual visitors to tiger parks is one objective, Tiger Nation also has a far more serious conservationist agenda — to keep tabs on the tigers in the park using software that identifies tigers by their stripes (each tiger has a unique pattern of stripes, much like fingerprints that are unique to each human being). This is how it works — visitors on safaris inside the park, conservationists, government officials, etc., take pictures of tigers they see and upload them on Tiger Nation. The stripe recognition system, specially developed for Tiger Nation by UK web development firm Thoughtified, normalises the stripe pattern in the image (i.e., makes up for indistinct patches), applies an algorithm to it and runs it against a database of known tigers, telling you which one it is. It also plots the tiger’s location on a map, so that wildlife experts can plot its movements and activities.
“Camera trapping”, where cameras are scattered across an animal’s known habitat, has become an accepted method of counting tigers, replacing the earlier method of studying pugmarks. It was used extensively in the tiger census conducted earlier this year. Where Tiger Nation innovates is by incorporating elements of social media and cloud sourcing into the technology.
“I call it a “citizen science tool” and is based on the pioneering research of Ulhas Karanth. The idea was first mooted by Raghu Chundawat [a specialist in snow leopards and the tigers in Panna],” says Julian Matthews, a British national who runs Travel Operators for Tigers, an NGO that works to promote responsible nature tourism, and is one of the principal movers of Tiger Nation.
Tiger Nation hasn’t been launched fully yet — what you have now is only a beta version which covers just two of the 39 tiger reserves in India — Ranthambhore and Bandhavgarh. The stripe recognition system also applies to only 27 of the 53 big cats in the two reserves. “These two parks are well-recorded by the conservationists who have been living for years on its outskirts, but we do plan to extend the system,” says Matthews. Attempts are being made to partner with the government so as to tap into the latter’s database of camera-trap images, he reveals. Other improvements planned are real-time, interactive games for children.
Despite the gaps, Tiger Nation has managed to get 2,000 members in the six months it has been around, many of who have paid Rs 1,190 to buy an annual subscription. If it manages to attract some more of the around 2 million visitors to tiger parks every year, perhaps our tigers, who number just 1,706 now, will have a better chance of survival.