Guest post by Kenny Walker and Ashwin Naidu, with Ashley R. Kelly.
It’s an early Thursday morning at the Kawal Wildlife Sanctuary, Andhra Pradesh and members of the Hyderabad Tiger Conservation Society (HyTiCoS) are on the lookout for any sight of a tiger. A tropical dry forest with dense deciduous teak, thiruman, maddi, and bamboo, the sanctuary is a reserve for tigers, leopards, sloth bears, wild dogs and other endangered and threatened species. The HyTiCoS members spot a clearing in Dayyam Vagu, a perennial water source, where they set a digital camera to photograph endangered tigers and their sympatric carnivores. Imran and Asif Siddiqui, brothers and co-founders of HyTiCoS, and animal tracker Shankar crouch in the brittle leaves, set a GPS point, and harness a camera to the trunk of a large teak tree. With any luck, observations from this camera will reach people across the globe–helping to preserve a key indicator of the health of this forest, the legendary wild tiger.
Poachers, losses of prey, and habitat destruction have taken their toll—there are an estimated 1400 wild tigers remaining in India. Twenty years ago a group of ragtag individuals responded to this crisis by organizing around a concern for tiger conservation. After years of building a network of citizen stakeholders—residents from the city of Hyderabad, international conservationists, and locals living near forest areas—they formed HyTiCoS, a completely volunteer-run organization of about 30 members who work exclusively to conserve tigers in the Andhra Pradesh region. Since becoming a non-profit in 2000, they have trained Andhra Pradesh Forest Department staff and local citizens, called “animal trackers,” to conduct tiger and leopard monitoring research. HyTiCoS emphasizes community capacity building as they simultaneously undertake GIS-based habitat analyses, collect DNA evidence, and track numbers and behaviors of tigers and other carnivores. Their systematic local observations aim to build complex and multi-layered data sets that both reveal and protect the lives of wild tigers. Despite not receiving any donations or reimbursements in the past decade for their time and money spent in the field, they’ve built an organization of citizen scientists acting as, among many other things, the curators of the forest.
But the affordances of recent technologies also allow these projects to take on a global reach. A good example is Team Tiger, a collaborative project founded by Wildcat Researchers, Lisa Haynes and Ashwin Naidu, and Imran Siddiqui. Team Tiger is essentially an international citizen science collaboration facilitated by scientific researchers: In Arizona, Ashwin builds a participant donor base for the citizen science projects happening through HyTiCoS and images and articles about tigers are sent back to the donors, thus connecting individual donors with their contributions to conservation. This “adopt a camera, adopt a cat” program connects local citizens in Arizona to community organizers in Andhra Pradesh who, when equipped with new observation and communication technologies in the field, are able to capture and communicate a global concern about an endangered species like the Indian tiger.
At the Reid Park Zoo in Tucson, Arizona, Ashwin helps teen volunteers learn about the status of tigers in the wild and acquaints them with a hands-on setup of remote wildlife cameras in the zoo. The teens in turn communicate their knowledge to citizens in Tucson, and are inspired to pursue careers in wildlife conservation. The donor base in Arizona also inspires villagers in Andhra Pradesh to become conservationists–one animal tracker is Shankar, who now makes a better living working with HyTiCoS than he did when he was tending to his family by cutting bamboo. These funds also help protect other animals such as the leopard, sloth bear, rusty-spotted cat, smooth-coated otter, gaur/Indian bison, dhole/Indian wild dog, and striped hyena. Photos from the cameras (purchased with donated funds) are used to encourage the public to conduct citizen science. Such projects are unique in their ability to crowdsource funding and transfer public knowledge globally by connecting local communities who share a common interest in protecting wild tigers. Citizen science isn’t just about your backyard, but about backyards across the globe that need investment now. In a world of rapid change, scientists become more than experts, and citizens become more than concerned individuals. Together they become community organizations that learn from and respond to local conditions and build strategic responses to global crises.
Large scale monitoring projects like those HyTiCoS and Team Tiger have engaged in are part of a broader theme in citizen science–a return to natural history as an older and deeply observational way of understanding complexity in natural systems, now these traditional method are enhanced by new technologies, and a renewed respect for local observers. Many urgent problems like tiger conservation have complex relationships between social and ecological components across large spatial scales, and are subject to change so rapidly, that they require immediate and up-to-date information for conservation policies. As Rafe Sagarin and Anibal Pauchard argue in their new book Observation and Ecology, by becoming astute observers of environmental change, and by fusing our innate senses with new technologies, our ability to build data sets appropriate to the scale, dynamics, and rapid change of ecological problems is dramatically enhanced. A renewed appreciation for building big data from observations broadens the scope of ecological science to include collaborations not just between citizens and scientists, but also between citizens who may live on different continents, yet share common concerns in crises.
But the practice of observation-based ecology employed by citizen scientists doesn’t just offer a renewed vision of science in practice but a renewed vision of an integrated science-public communication. Like our innate observational skills, our communication skills can be trained to be more agile and nuanced. Like our observations, we can extend our capacities for communication by seeing the available means in emerging technologies to broadly envision the impact of localized problems. Deep in the forests of the Kawal Wildlife Sanctuary, members of HyTiCoS must not only photograph and monitor wild tigers, they must use the available means of communication technologies to build trust, motivate forms of reasoning, tell stories, get funding, and organize community social action around the value judgments of tiger conservation.
Guest Author Bios
Kenny Walker is a PhD Candidate in the Rhetoric, Composition, and Teaching of English program at the University of Arizona, where he conducts research in the rhetoric of science and technology, and works with the Carson Scholars Program through the Institute of the Environment. You can reach him at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Ashwin Naidu is a PhD Student in the School of Natural Resources and the Environment at the University of Arizona (UA). He is a member of the UA Wild Cat Research and Conservation Center, the IUCN Cat Specialist Group, and his research interest is in use of non-invasive methods for management and conservation of wild cat species. Ashwin facilitated the collaboration between the HyTiCoS and the UA Wild Cat Center in 2010. You can reach him at: email@example.com