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How Two Techies Are Helping Foresters Combat Wildlife Crimes With Technology

Founders of Kerala-based Leopard Tech Labs, Allen Shaji and Sobin Matthew built the Hostile Activity Watch Kernel (HAWK) software to help forest departments fight wildlife crime.

How Two Techies Are Helping Foresters Combat Wildlife Crimes With Technology

With the growing modernisation and increasing population, the line between civilisation and the wild has become increasingly blurry. For the most part, humans have been known to encroach upon areas designated for the wild.

This human-animal conflict has raised issues worldwide. In a country like India, which is home to some of the rarest animals on the planet, encompassing over 24 percent of forest area, the rate of wildlife crime is alarmingly high.

If we look back at our ancestors, we realise that perpetrating atrocities upon innocent wildlife has been a sport for humans. Whether hunting them for pleasure or exploiting their skin, teeth, and bones for our benefit, we have exploited them for ages.

Despite the Government implementing rules and laws to protect the wild, cases of wildlife crime remain staggeringly high. According to a report by The Hindu, in 2020 alone, there were more than 1,000 registered cases of wildlife crime. A report by The Indian Express states that in 2023, Tamil Nadu reported 150 cases of wildlife crime, while Karnataka reported 70 instances of wildlife crimes and 17 incidents of poaching.

Even with a judicial system in place for such crimes, the question of why wildlife crimes are on the rise persists. Faced with similar concerns, two tech enthusiasts, Allen Shaji and Sobin Mathew from Kerala combined their technological expertise and passion for the wild to digitally document wildlife crimes in India. This not only eliminates bureaucracy and paperwork but also expedites the delivery of justice.

Fighting wildlife crime with technology

Born and raised in Kerala, Allen and Sobin were college buddies who completed their graduation from Amalguri College of Engineering in 2016.

“Like any other engineering graduates, we were also looking for job opportunities. I got placed at a company and was waiting for the offer letter to arrive in 2016 when I realised that I might not want to do a job,” Allen tells The Better India.

Sobin Mathew and Allen Shaji, co-founders of Leopard Tech Labs.
Sobin Mathew and Allen Shaji, co-founders of Leopard Tech Labs. Picture credit: Leopard Tech Labs

During this time, he met with some conservationists who nudged him into wildlife conservation. “While most techies are into finding jobs and getting packages, I realised that the wildlife conservation sector is something that no one really talks about,’ he says.

“At that time, the techies weren’t delving into conservation, and technology was quite limited in this field. When we had the opportunity to converse with conservationists, they mentioned the lack of certain software tools. Everything relied heavily on paperwork, prompting us to contemplate introducing innovation to the conservation field.”

He continues, “I realised how there is a gap in the market. There is almost zero technology to track any kind of wildlife crime in India. So I decided to join hands with my friend Sobin who has similar interests to bridge this gap.”

And just in time, when the duo was looking to enter the field, “We were looking for opportunities in the sector and tried reaching various conservationists. We met with Mr Jose Louie, who also was from our hometown. He was from the Wildlife Trust Of India who helped us secure our first project with them. The project, named Mapper, marked the beginning of our collaboration. Upon successfully completing this project, we realised that our ideas have more potential,” he says.

In 2017, they incorporated the company ‘Leopard Tech Labs’. Currently, they have launched several products that help combat wildlife crime and have a customer base in eight countries. They inform that they are also in collaboration with different State Governments in India.

‘HAWK’ for speedy justice

After incorporating their company, Allen and Sobin began working as consultant software developers for the Wildlife Trust of India. It was during this period that they seized an opportunity to collaborate with the Kerala Forest Department.

“Working with the Wildlife Trust of India and with their support, our company was able to make HAWK or Hostile Activity Watch Kernel with the forest department of Kerala,” he says.

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In 2023, Tamil Nadu reported 150 cases of wildlife crime, while Karnataka reported 70 instances of wildlife crimes and 17 incidents of poaching.

The Kerala forest department or most forest departments in the country relied heavily on manual records of crimes and cases. The Kerala forest department has now switched to a digital documenting process in a first-of-its-kind initiative.

“HAWK is an offence management system that includes case handling, court case monitoring, communication management, and wildlife death monitoring. This module encompasses various functions,” he explains, “Before its implementation, all processes were managed through paperwork. With the software in place, users simply input the data, and the system automatically generates reports in formats such as PDF, ready for submission to the court.”

The company has built an analytics module along with a communication module. For instance, if a question arises in the Parliament about the number of wildlife deaths in Kerala from January 1 to February. The system provides the required data with a single click and within seconds, enabling efficient analysis.

Explaining how the software works, Allen says, “Users can quickly retrieve data on specific wildlife incidents, like the number of elephant deaths from electrocution or tigers lost to hunting. The system provides data in formats such as Excel, PDF, graphs, and Google Maps, offering insights into the geographical distribution of incidents.”

Additionally, it allows higher authorities to monitor the status of cases, whether pending at the range or division level or submitted to the court. This functionality streamlines review meetings, facilitates prompt actions based on case progress, and provides speedy justice.

For this data, the company collaborates with various NGOs and Government agencies. Currently, they are in collaboration with NGOs — such as IUCN, IFaw, WTI, Kerala Forest Department, Tamil Nadu Forest Department, Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, Periyar Tiger Reserve, Parambikulam Tiger Reserve, and Species Survival Commission (SSC).

Besides HAWK, the company has several other products such as SARPA — Snake Awareness, Rescue and Protection App, Jumbo Radar — a comprehensive tool to monitor elephants outside protected areas, WildWatch — an integrated human-wildlife conflict mitigation and early warning system, and much more.

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HAWK is an offence management system that handles cases, and monitors court cases, and wildlife deaths.

“In the realm of wildlife and human-animal conflict, existing systems often rely on paperwork, resulting in a lack of comprehensive data. Our system, however, enables tracking of crop patterns over time, facilitating the identification of periods with increased conflicts,” he says.

By generating heat maps and analysing data spanning five years, the company can pinpoint specific times when conflicts peak. “This information allows for targeted interventions, such as advising villagers to relocate or alter crop cultivation practices, thereby mitigating conflicts and promoting coexistence,” he says.

Find their work interesting? Visit their website to know more.

(Edited by Pranita Bhat)

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