e-Eye is a large-scale intelligent technology capable of 24/7 all-weather, live-feed wildlife surveillance in vulnerable areas and sanctuary perimeters, collecting and interpreting wildlife crime data to alert law enforcement before violations occur.
The anti-poaching apparatus secures protected areas by helping monitor hard-to-access regions, detect intruders, manage patrols and keep rangers accountable. It also helps reserve managers study wildlife.
Its developers and users hope to expand it to other domestic and international reserves to protect more tigers and other threatened species, such as elephants.
A new set of eyes is keeping watch over tiger reserves across India. They’re electronic, but they seem to have hawk-like observational faculties. And they may be related to how the country’s tiger population increased from 1,706 in 2010, one year before this digital monitoring system was first implemented, to 2,226 in 2014, the last census year, according to The Economic Times.
Dubbed “e-Eye,” it’s a landscape-scale intelligent technology capable of 24/7 all-weather, live-feed wildlife surveillance in vulnerable areas and sanctuary perimeters, collecting and interpreting wildlife and human presence within to alert law enforcement before violations occur.
The anti-poaching apparatus secures protected areas by helping monitor hard-to-access areas, detect intruders, manage patrols and keep rangers accountable. It also helps reserve managers study wildlife. The system tracks animals’ general movements, including potentially fatal dispersals into human settlements, size, density, average speed and other attributes of groups of larger animals, and generates analysis reports to identify directions they take and patterns they make.
The early-warning technology is currently assisting India’s Forest Department survey Jim Corbett National Park in the northern state of Uttarakhand; Kaziranga National Park in the northeastern state of Assam; and Ratapani Tiger Reserve in the central state of Madhya Pradesh. The central government operationalized and funded installation through its National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA).
“These parks have been using it extensively,” said Raja Brij Bhushan, e-Eye’s co-creator. “They are finding it very useful in terms of tiger monitoring, curtailing poaching, identifying intruders and monitoring [other] animals. They’re also finding it useful for monitoring patrolling activities and planning patrols.”
Inside the eye
e-Eye provides high-resolution monitoring by integrating short-range infrared (IR) cameras with long-range thermal and motion sensing ones atop solar-powered towers an average of 45m tall throughout a park. Each long-range camera sweeps a circle of approximately 70 km2, while each IR camera monitors activity directly below a watch post. The system uses varifocal visible cameras with a field of view (FOV) of 1.7° to 57.8° and thermal cameras with a fixed zoom lens and FOV of 6.2°. The sensors function in the dark and fog, environmental conditions that can otherwise conceal poachers.
Remotely connected to this imaging array via a 4G network and satellite technology, staff at the park’s central server station and authorized users elsewhere can receive data from all sensors and control every monitoring feed. They can pan, tilt and zoom in on living objects over 20 kg using a web browser. Such objects prompt alerts if they cross into restricted territory; the control room notifies authorities via text, call or email within 30 to 40 seconds of processing the information so they can check for human interference and decide whether to take action. This allows response teams to move swiftly to the scene to prevent poaching and other unlawful activities.
The system, which can issue monitoring commands to the cameras and scan all simultaneous live footage automatically, supplements limited on-the-ground patrols. Users initially show each swiveling camera the critical points it must keep an eye on around a tower; then the device automatically stops to survey those areas and analyze the imagery it receives for trends requiring further attention or enforcement action.
e-Eye is the brainchild of two engineers and wildlife enthusiasts, Bhushan and Ravikant Singh, who cofounded Binomial Solutions Private Limited. They noticed a need for effective advanced wildlife crime technology in tiger reserves and rose to the challenge of providing it. First, they researched organizations dealing with security threats, such as the U.S. Army, and many surveillance technologies. In 2009, they devised and started realizing the idea for e-Eye, focusing on tiger conservation with the NTCA’s support.
As NDTV reports, the pilot project happened in Corbett, famed for its high tiger population and density. After surveying the land and identifying paths, boundaries and other locations at risk of intrusion, the engineers and forest officials determined the number and positions of watch posts for necessary coverage. Then the NTCA erected 10 camera-mounted towers throughout the 350 km2 sensitive southern area of the park, plagued by infiltration and poaching, near the state of Uttar Pradesh. The system relays alerts to the park’s control room and the NTCA office in the nearby national capital, Delhi.
NTCA field workers observed that the technology has significantly decreased intrusions, poaching and illegal mining, compensating for gaps in staff’s monitoring resulting from insufficient manpower and poachers’ awareness and avoidance of patrols. Likewise, the Indian Forest Service’s S.P. Yadav, Assistant Secretary General of the Global Tiger Forum (GTF), reflected that e-Eye has helped arrest unregulated miners and discouraged locals from encroaching the protected zone.
“The number of people entering the forest has shown a dramatic decline,” confirmed Samir Sinha, Corbett’s Chief Conservator of Forests and Park Director, saying the innovation’s strength is its ability to deter intruders who would otherwise mandate enforcement action.
In 2014, the NTCA brought e-Eye to Ratapani and Kaziranga, too.
A useful solution
The surveillance mechanism appears to have reduced tiger attacks on people in both Uttarakhand and Madhya Pradesh. Official records contain eight attack reports nationally in the past year, compared to 28 in the previous year and 90 over the last three years, states The Asian Age.
Yadav claimed e-Eye is useful in the context of the many challenges facing Indian reserves, including insufficient front-line staff; aging of employees; need for constant surveillance; difficult, inaccessible terrain; rough climate; and natural disasters, such as fires and floods.
“Under such circumstance, e-Eye is extremely helpful in complementing anti-poaching activities, monitoring and surveillance,” he said. “The pilot project at Corbett has been very encouraging. Results of e-Eye at Kaziranga and Ratapani have boosted our confidence of using it for 24/7 surveillance and monitoring. It has been successful in reducing dependency on [the] human factor.”
NTCA officials maintain that uninterrupted coverage regardless of light and forest cover makes e-Eye an asset in their anti-poaching and wildlife monitoring arsenal. They see no disadvantages to it, although they acknowledge it can’t replace foot patrols.
In April 2016, India’s Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change asked authorities to audit e-Eye. After visiting tiger reserves in every state, they concluded the technology was producing positive results where it’s currently used and would enhance conservation if implemented in other tiger habitats.
Bhushan noted that although it’s just one of many conservation tools with various pros and cons, e-Eye offers certain advantages against previous surveillance alternatives, such as camera traps and drones.
“Camera traps are good to capture quality images on animal movement routes, but if you want to monitor the full park, the number of cameras and effort required is tremendous,” he said. “Apart from that, it is offline data, [whereas] this is live.”
He added that e-Eye provides more extensive surveillance than drones, too; drones tend to fly for 30 to 40 minutes at a time, over three to four kilometers, and only for a maximum of three or four flights per day.
An expensive solution
According to John Goodrich, Panthera‘s Senior Tiger Program Director, e-Eye would be valuable in sufficiently open, flat habitat seriously threatened by poaching and covered by rapid, well-trained and well-equipped response teams. He identified Kaziranga as such a place, where the very high value of its endangered greater one-horned rhino might make e-Eye worth the expense.
“The forest minister has announced e-Eye should be used for monitoring tigers in all parks. There is a lot of demand from park directors,” said Bhushan. “The only thing holding us back is finance.”
This is no small holdup. Setting up the pilot amounted to almost $751,000; the technology took $1.2 million to establish in Kaziranga. Therefore, it’s not a mechanism that can be quickly deployed across reserves, and it can only be introduced to about one protected area per year in India. Plus, at about 10% of the installation cost, annual maintenance isn’t an insignificant investment either.
Conservation biologist Eric Wikramanayake, who co-led the mapping of Asian tiger conservation landscapes and advises efforts to protect the big cat in Nepal’s Terai Arc Landscape, remarked that one would choose a more cost-effective system if available.
“Given its cost, maintenance issues and field of view, it is not effective everywhere. We considered it for Nepal, but opted not to because of the cost, and it wouldn’t work in most places,” he said, doubting its effectiveness in dense vegetation hiding heat signatures. “[We] considered using it along rivers, where they form a park boundary. Unless they can be manufactured in Nepal cheaper, it probably will not be deployed here.”
Goodrich suggested that Panthera’s PoacherCam, currently available primarily to the organization’s grantees, harnesses similar technology in a more cost-effective way. The easily camouflaged camera-trap sized device also uses an invisible IR flash and motion sensors to detect people and wildlife and wirelessly transmits real-time image data over GSM networks. What gives it an edge, though, is its incorporation of a human-recognition algorithm e-Eye is only working toward. So at $200 a unit, PoacherCam could be placed throughout a reserve to provide potentially comparable surveillance at a fraction of the cost.
Bhushan admits the system has other limitations as well. He stated that the solar-power on the towers shut down after four or five consecutive overcast rainy or winter days once or twice a year. Fixing this, he reasoned, wasn’t worth the cost; the system reboots automatically when adequate sunlight returns.
“If there is a very thick canopy, it cannot see through,” Bhushan continued, noting that placing watch posts at all entry and exit points has circumvented this problem. “Apart from that, hilly terrain; seeing much beyond rises every 500m is really tough.”
But according to the developer, forest workers can simply concentrate manual monitoring on areas e-Eye can’t cover.
On the other hand, although he has clearly observed a tiger through e-Eye in Corbett, Goodrich believes these constraints make the technology largely inviable considering cost.
“Vegetation and topography will be very limiting factors, blocking the view from cameras in most protected areas where tigers occur. Tiger habitat is characterized by dense forests and rugged terrain, which severely limits the utility of the system,” he said. “Further, the expense of the system likely outweighs the benefits, given the very limited nature of conservation funds and availability of alternatives. So, e-Eye will be justifiable only under limited circumstances.”
Yet Sinha thinks the technology is worth the investment, although not without drawbacks. For example, it requires a trained human eye to always be present to review the images considered suspicious to distinguish the heat signatures of possible human intruders from those of wildlife of comparable mass, such as deer.
“As there are multiple users, the cost will come down, utility will improve and it’ll be good for all of us,” he commented. “At this time, this is the one option I know that works the way we want it to. The sensitivity of this system, the ruggedness, the robustness – this is in a class of its own.”
Looking to the future
With prize winnings from this year’s Wildlife Crime Tech Challenge in hand–$10,000 plus technical and networking assistance–e-Eye’s innovators join forest officials in hopes to soon expand the information technology based anti-poaching solution. According to Sinha, the system is currently undergoing a major upgrade.
Talks are currently underway to bring it to other sensitive wildlife habitats, such as Bandhavgarh National Park in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh and Periyar Tiger Reserve in the southwestern state of Kerala, as per regional needs. With GTF and USAID’s assistance, the designers plan to launch the system in every tiger range country. They even envision applying it to conserving other endangered species, including elephants threatened by railway or road accidents and by humans protecting tea gardens and sugarcane fields in places such as Chhattisgarh in central India. What’s more, Singh and Bhushan are considering outfitting the system’s towers with self-flying drones that can follow threats moving beyond e-Eye’s sight.
“e-Eye technology has tremendous potential in wildlife management, surveillance and monitoring,” concluded the NTCA.
As it currently stands, however, some experts still question whether this system can be widely feasible and cost-effective in mitigating poaching and human-wildlife conflict, as site-specific conditions and cost affect scalability.