Can Facebook save the Indian Tigers?


SAPTARISHI Saigal’s week is a demanding one. The stockbroker with Aditya Birla Money Ltd., from jabalpur in Madhya Pardesh, spends Monday to Friday tracking the market’s highs and lows. Come Saturday morning, the 29-year-old drives two-and-a-half hours to get to Bandhavgarh National Park, spends hours with villagers, and depleting natural reserves with forest officials. Of the 90-odd villagers along the periphery of the park that has the highest known tiger population in India, Saigal has managed to survey 25 and mediates between locals who lose their cattle to tiger attacks and officials in issue of compensation and relocation.This has been his routine since 2007.Two weeks ago on a muggy afternoon, there was a breach in the schedule when Saigal spotted a tigress snuggling with her cubes. Christened Kankati (cut-eared) by the locals because of deep scares on her ears, her left litter has been fathered by Bamera, Bandhavgarh’s dominant male tiger. A cautions Saigal pulled out his Nikon D700 to capture private moments of the family.In the next few hours, the picture were uploaded on www.tigernation.org, a two-month-old social networking site that wnts to find and follow India’s remaining wild tigers. Founded by British conservationist Julian Matthews, it allows its 1,000 members to sign up for free create a profile and follow their favourite tigers in Bandhavgarh and Ranthambhore, Rajasthan, while receiving real-time update about their movement, via photographs, video and blog posts uploaded on the hour.Vacationers on Facebook anyway. We figured, why not use this data intelligently to keep a watch on the tiger population, says Matthews.

Tiger Nation’s core team includes experienced conservationists who identify tigers in every new upload, looking for a match in their database. The collated information makes its way to a special profile page created for each tiger. According to Matthews, Ranthambhore has 46 tigers (22 new cubs were born between October 2011 and may 2012) while Bandhavgarh has 26 identified tigers and several unrecorded ones. The idea is to record every tiger in India through citizen photography. Mapping and tracking the population creates a better chance to survival, says Satyendrs Tiwari, who runs a lodge in Bandhavgarh Tala village and is on Tiger Nation’s team.

Coming up is the launch of a unique identification software that costs millions of pounds. Developed by Georgios Michalakidis, director of UK software development firm Thoughtified, it will help the tean identify tigers based on their stripes; much like fingerprints.

It’s a win-win situation , the experts say with this exhaustive database at the disposal of park field directors border and intelligence agencies, NGOs and wildlife organizations. For the urban members, it’s the lure of connecting with like-minded youngsters, sharing photos, receiving news feeds about gripping jungle drama and playing a game that challengers them to compare tiger stripes   just like on Facebook.

As with any social platform, gamification is an important element and works as an incentive. We currently provide a badge system that awards user different activities. Tiger jig-saws mobile apps that use augmented reality are in the pipeline, say Michalakidis. While the Tiger Nation site still in beta testing stage, Matthews has plans to introduce role-playing next. Donning the park ranger’s hat for a day, members get to locate missing tigers, make sure watering holes are clean and the feed, adequate. It will help them realize the significant work done by forest officials, while offering them entertainment, he says Farmville has competition.

It’s about time, say Prasant Naidu, founder of Lighthouse Insights, a website that reviews brand campaigns that employ social networking. Indians believe that if an NGO is talking about street children. You have to show them hungry, pathetic kids. How many time have we heard about the last 1,400 tigers? Let’s talk about the ones that are there.

What’s social media got to do with saving?
The idea behind people-powered conservation stems from the realization that million of Indians are using text, email, Twitter and Facebook to harness direct action. The power of instant world wide communication can bail out India’s endangered species, say experts.

And a recent press report should only make them happier, India is already the third largest Facebook market abd by 2015, we are expected to have more Facebook users than any other country in the world.

While a social media presence that allows people to follow or like you is the latest fad for both brands and social organization, for it to work on ground, the objective must be linked to implementation, insists Naidu.

Offline impact
Twenty-one-year-old New Delhi resident and engineering student at a college in Manipal university, Ramit singal knows hoe that’s done. A book on birds gifted by his dad when he was just 13, made him an avian fan. When a cement factory was expected to come up near his hostel, Singl knew it was bad news for migratory birds there. He uploaded a before and after photograph of the area on his Facebook profile and receive a 100 shares in just one day. Conservation India, a non-profile portal that facilitates nature conservation, jumped in. After four applications and repeated visits to the municipal authorities, an investigation was ordered, revealing that a tank in the facility contained dangerously high levels of fly ash. The construction has been halted till further notice.

singal’s pool of picture find their way to migrantwatch.in, an online initiative that sees 1,500 members, including homemakers, student and businessmen across 31 indian states, collect and share data on migrant birds. Conversation initiatives depend on good quality data. Phonological monitoring projects like migrant watch, which aim to gather high volumes of field data over a large geographical area, cannot succeed without involving young enthusiasts. New media, spurred by access to the internet and popularity of smart-phones, is growing into a powerful tool, says Raman Kumar, ecologist and coordinators at Migrant Watch, that receive funding from the National centre for Biological science, Bengaluru.

And mapping migration is far from a futile pastime. Migratory birds are powerful signalmen. The advent of the monsoon, for instance, has been linked with the appearance of the pied Cuckoo. Say , a species that visits a place every year, fails to make it this time, it’s reason enough to investigate damage to local habitat, explain Singal.

App to report discovery of new species
New York-base Yasser Ansari of Indian-pakistani origin is proof that entrepreneurs are designing conservation projects leveraged by the power and portability of mobile devices, instead of using social media as just an add-on. The ‘Chief Leaf’ of project NOAH, a social network launched in2010 to document all organisms of the natural world, launched an iPhone app that allowed users to upload pictures and data spotted in real time. It soon became the number one educational app in America.

A team of five employees in the US and 50 volunteer-moderators called project NOAH Rangers, help young members edit content, identify species, while offering technical support. Users can log in through their existing accounts on Facebook and Gmail.

From his home in Sarahan Bushahr, Himachal Pardesh, Chime Tsetan, a science teacher is able to log onto Project NOAH’s map, which lists all the 2.3 lakh wildlife spottings with location details, uploaded by its 1 lakh members.

It’s this at-home, from-home advantage that Saptarishi Saigal is banking on. With his family planning a wedding soon, he’s not sure how long it will be before he has to end his weekend tiger trails. But he knows he’ll never be too far away from the blow-by-blow drama in the wild.

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