Can Facebook Save The Indian Tiger [With Some Help From Gamification]?

India is currently the third largest Facebook-using population in the world, and is expected to take the lead by 2015.  Knowing that, this Indian tiger conservation project has modeled itself after Facebook and is using gamification to further encourage crowd-sourced photography.  The idea is that this citizen photography effort will allow the dwindling population to be tracked, but also serve as an awareness campaign and a way to start new conversations about what can be done to prevent this population from disappearing.

via Yolande D’Mello, indiatimes.com

Yes, says a young stockbroker, and the team behind a wildly ambitious online project to find and follow India’s remaining wild tigers, armed with a new weapon — social media. Yolande D’Mello speaks to urban professionals and entrepreneurs using the power of Twitter, Facebook, SMS and email to save India’s wildlife.

Saptarishi Saigal’s week is a demanding one. The stockbroker with Aditya Birla Money Ltd., from Jabalpur in Madhya Pradesh, 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 discusses depleting natural reserves with forest officials. Of the 90-odd villages 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 on issues 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 cubs. Christened Kankati (cut-eared) by the locals because of deep scars on her ears, her first litter has been fathered by Bamera, Bandhavgarh’s dominant male tiger. A cautious Saigal pulled out his Nikon D700 to capture private moments of the family.

FIND, SHOOT, UPLOAD
In the next few hours, the pictures were uploaded on http://www.tigernation.org, a two-month-old social networking site that wants 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 updates about their movement, via photographs, videos and blog posts uploaded on the hour.

“Vacationers who visit Indian tiger reserves upload their pictures on Facebook anyway. We figured, why not use this data intelligently to keep a watch on the tiger population,” says Matthews.
TigerNation’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 of survival,” says Satyendra Tiwari, who runs a lodge in Bandhavgarh’s Tala village, and is on TigerNation’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 team identify tigers based on their stripes; much like fingerprints.

IMITATING FACEBOOK
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 organisations. 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 challenges 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 users for different activities. Tiger jigsaws and mobile apps that use augmented reality are in the pipeline,” says Michalakidis. While the TigerNation site is 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 realise the significant work done by forest officials, while offering them entertainment,” he says.

FARMVILLE HAS COMPETITION
“It’s about time,” says 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 times 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 realisation that millions of Indians are using text, email, Twitter and Facebook to harness direct action. The power of instant worldwide 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, and 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 organisations, 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 how 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, Singal knew it was bad news for migratory birds there. He uploaded a before and after photograph of the area on his Facebook profile, and received a 100 shares in just one day. Conservation India, a non-profit 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 pictures find their way to migrantwatch.in, an online initiative that sees 1,500 members, including homemakers, students and businessmen across 31 Indian states, collect and share data on migrant birds. “Conservation initiatives depend on good quality data. Phenological monitoring projects like MigrantWatch, 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 smartphones, is growing into a powerful tool,” says Raman Kumar, ecologist and coordinator at MigrantWatch, that receives funding from the National Centre for Biological Sciences, 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,” explains Singal.

APP TO REPORT DISCOVERY OF NEW SPECIES
New York-based 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 in 2010 to document all organisms of the natural world, launched an iPhone app that allowed users to upload pictures and data spotted in realtime. 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 Pradesh, Chime Tsetan, a science teacher, is able to log into 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.

PRICELESS DATA
A Project NOAH user from India who identifies himself as Dipanshu snapped a photo of a flower (above) while hiking in Sikkim. He uploaded what he believed was an orchid, but baffled plant experts around the world. It turned out that it wasn’t a new species, but one that had never been photographed. “So, now we have the only known photo of the Impatiens,” says Ansari.

“Vacationers who visit Indian tiger reserves upload their pictures on Facebook anyway. We figured, why not use this data intelligently to keep a watch on the tiger population” – Julian Matthews, founder, tigernation.org

WANT TO SAVE THE TIGER? PAY UP
TigerNation calls itself a conservation-based business, with its website claiming it has raised private funds to set up cutting-edge technology worth millions. While current users are able to sign up for free or pay what they like, in the next three months, it will allow them limited access. “We plan to have premium subscription packages for research organisations that want to access our database. Once returns get sizable, we’ll be able to pump it back into on-ground conservation,” says founder Julian Matthews, who believes a fee will make members value the service enough to take it seriously.

“It’s (effect of social media) a drop in the ocean, but it makes a difference in delivering facts, gaining eyeballs and changing perceptions. It allows you the chance to talk about issues that don’t get picked up by mainstream IUndian media” – Vidya Athreya, biologist at the Centre for Wildlife Studies, Bengaluru

“While a social media presence that allows people to ‘follow’ or ‘like’ you is the latest fad for both, brands and social organisations, for it to work on ground, the objective must be linked to implementation” – Prasant Naidu, social media commentator.

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