Indian forests have always been under pressure, even more so in the recent years. While the coverage has grown per the ISFR 2019 (Indian State of Forest Resources), protecting the forests has never been easy.
In a recent conversation with a forest official, we discussed how to put emerging technologies toward forest protection and conservation.
While the key technologies that power IoT keep evolving, the core philosophy remains the same. We need a way to "see" the way the things are (using appropriate sensors/devices for sound, vibration, image, GPS, temperature, moisture, and so on), communicate the information to a place where the gathered information is analyzed, and communicate the insights/advice to help in taking suitable actions. In this way, implementing effective forest protection using IoT is a distinct possibility.
We can consider using the learnings of the worldwide forest management community, and deploy technologies, such as the Internet of things, that have been successfully deployed, and come up with new solutions, too, which can be replicated elsewhere.
Wildlife poaching has been one of the biggest challenges for the authorities. According to estimates, India is one of the most dangerous places for the forest guards, with over 160 personnel having lost their lives guarding the jungles. While tigers have been the biggest target of the poachers, the smaller ones like monitor lizards and pangolins have been hunted in large numbers. With the Internet of things (IoT), thermal imaging applications can be used to detect presence of the poachers/unauthorized persons in the forests. Through IoT technology, imaging analytics can be applied at camera traps to help differentiate between humans and animals and take adequate actions.
Illegal Logging and Mining
Illegal logging of precious timber has been going on in remote forests, which are very difficult to monitor and patrol. In the Indian context, sandalwood, rosewood, oak trees have been targets, and thieves resort to cut these trees even in city limits. Using IoT technology, GPS, along with vibration and shock sensors, can play a good role to gather the sounds/signals, and match them with the “sound signatures” associated with chain saws or the impact of axes to raise alerts. Moreover, even if the poachers are successful in cutting down a tree, the embedded sensors will help trace them. A similar situation exists for illegal mining/quarrying within the forest boundaries, which can be addressed with drone technology.
These conflicts have been the biggest issue in the forest regions in eastern/north eastern states of Orissa, West Bengal, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, etc. The key reason has been the shrinking habitats, resulting in animals venturing into the villages to pillage the standing crops or domestic animals. Imaginative use of sensors can trigger responses that deter the animals without being lethal to them.
Monitoring Forest Health
The forest management has the enviable task of monitoring large tracts with limited resources. IoT makes it feasible to monitor the soil condition, water quality of the rivers passing through the forests to check on the level of pollutants released by the upstream industries, if any, or the level of deforestation by analyzing the turbidity of water.
In case of reforestation activities, the growth of the trees can be continuously monitored by using smart dendrometers, where the bands expand in tandem with the growth of the trees. The monitoring efforts come down significantly. These approaches work effectively in conjunction with the space technologies.
Intense Summers and Forest Fires
The summers are very hot in the Indian jungles, especially the ones in central India such as Ranthambore, Kanha, and Bandhavgarh. The summers are so intense that artificial water tanks are created for the animals. IoT can help in continuously monitoring the water availability at these tanks and judiciously plan their replenishment with water.
Forest fires are the bane of the dry deciduous forests or regions of conifer trees in the Himalayan regions. Many of the forest fires can be avoided if the key atmospheric variables are closely monitored – temperature, relative humidity and wind speed, matched against the McArthur Forest Fire Danger Index. By monitoring CO2 and CO levels, and smoke detection, one can develop alert mechanisms to help tackle the fire at the initial stages itself.
Road and Rail Kills
This is the cruelest manifestation of the conflict of forest protection and development. Each year hundreds of animals get killed on the roads and railway lines passing through the forests. The travelers on the 12.5 km stretch in Bandipur frequently come across the carcasses of wild animals, and all attempts have failed to make a dent in the rising deaths. From a technology perspective, smart devices tagged to vehicles passing through the forests can measure the speed and stoppages inside the jungles, and this can provide the visibility to enable enforcement of rules.
A similar situation exists in the context of trains passing through the jungles in the north and east—especially Corbett, Rajaji National Park, and the Dooars. While the trains travel at just 40 km/hr, it still is extremely dangerous as visibility is low in the night, and it takes a long time to stop a massive train even if the driver is able to see an animal on the tracks. Some potential IoT solutions that can be explored further and hold promise are based on LiDAR and radar technologies, but the range of application maybe a challenge.
Add to the above, Remote Operations Centers and Central Command Centers can be set up to provide the operational and technological support system to ensure that these IoT solutions do work effectively, and we can make continuous improvements, too. (One example of an ROC is the Philips ROC in Bangalore, which monitors smart lights across the world). In the short run, the ROCs can prevent crimes or fight forest fires, but the greater value will be achieved when it helps shape the larger public policy.
Figure 1: Protecting the Indian Forests with IoT
As we can see, Internet of things-based solutions hold immense promise. The challenge is that it would require extreme focus and significant investments if taken up by forest departments on an individual basis. If these solutions are developed by pooling efforts and funds, these solutions can be deployed across the forests in an economical manner on a national scale.
The way forward is for the Central Ministry of Environment and Forest and the State Forest departments to team up with the Indian technology sector to increasingly use technology for the greater good of society.