WATCH: Can AI and ML help spot panthers in the wild? Tourism startup WildTrails shows you how
To a wildlife enthusiast, going on safari and returning without sighting a biggie (think a Royal Bengal tiger or a black panther) is like eating a cupcake without getting a sugar rush. But Bengaluru-based tourism startup WildTrails is here to change all that.
Founded in September 2016 by Manjunath Gowda and Geeta Gauri, the artificial intelligence (AI)-powered startup claims to be the only one in the world to “apply data mining, analytics, and machine learning to increase the probability of wildlife sightings”.
Watch Manjunath in conversation with YourStory here:
Manjunath’s motto, he says, is one: “Look before you book.” And his startup, now operational across India and Africa (Kenya and Tanzania), claims to provide information that “you can’t even find on Google” and ensure that wildlife enthusiasts get their money’s worth when they book an expensive safari holiday.
What does WildTrails do?
WildTrails collects sighting data across national parks and tiger reserves across India (and the two African countries). The team then runs AI and ML algorithms on the data, using variables like the phases of the sun and moon, seasons, and regions, to detect patterns.
“Using these patterns, we generate a Sighting Index metric that predicts one’s chances of sighting a particular species,” Manjunath says.
The Sighting Index for a given mammal, bird, or big cat for a given period is crucial to predicting the chances of spotting that animal at a particular zone in the park for a given period.
WildTrails' Manjunath wanted wildlife enthusiasts get their money’s worth when they book an expensive safari holiday.
The cat’s out of the bag
Citing an example, Manjunath says he has discovered a pattern for sighting black panthers at Kabini Wildlife Sanctuary.
“The sightings are closely associated with the full moon and new moon,” he says.
Recalling a recent incident, Manjunath says the 11-member team has also connected the dots and found a pattern to spot black panthers. A Saudi client contacted him last year, keen to see a black panther. “Within 24 hours of landing in Bengaluru, he spotted one!” Manjunath says.
Black panther spotted in Kabini
Passion to profession
Manjunath, 49, has done his master’s in Computer Science from Oregon State in the US. A serial entrepreneur, he has been associated with three startups till now: Bristol Technologies, which was acquired by HP in 2003; S7 Software, which was acquired by BlueCoat Technologies in 2010; and AI company i7 networks which he started with Geeta.
WildTrails is Manjunath’s fourth startup and second venture with Geeta, 33, a computer science graduate and fellow wildlife enthusiast.
Growing up in Mysuru, Manjunath spent a lot of time in zoos, watching and feeding animals. “I especially grew a fondness for the big cats,” Manjunath recalls.
After i7, Manjunath decided to turn his passion for wildlife into his profession.
However, Manjunath’s eureka moment came much earlier. Visits to Kabini and Bandipur in the hope of spotting a tiger always disappointed Manjunath.
“It was not an era of mobile phones and I used to call the local guides there to enquire about the sightings and note them down on a book,” he says.
Soon Manjunath started drawing patterns and visiting the parks according to his predictive analysis.
“Various such patterns failed and I re-worked on them until one finally worked,” Manjunath recalls.
Manjunath with a member of the Masai Tribe (the natives of Masai Mara and Amboseli)
One-stop shop for wildlife lovers
The startup has partnered with 30 national parks across India and a few in South of Kenya and one in Tanzania, and also helps customers book safaris on the platform itself. The parks include popular ones like Bandipur National Park, Pench Wildlife Sanctuary, Kanha National Park, Masai Mara, Naivasha National Park, Ol Pajeta, and Serengeti National Park.
WildTrails also lists resorts, cab service providers, and naturalists across India to help users plan their entire trip. It has tied up with up to 300 resorts and naturalists across India, and partnered with local cab service providers for airport, railway, and bus-stop pickup-and-drop solutions.
Numbers do the talking
Manjunath and Geeta have invested Rs 50 lakh into their startup. Angels, including Rao Remala, Sharad Sharma, Murali Venkat Rao, Winnie Chu, Vijay Rayapati and Kumar Rangarajan, have pumped another $125,000 into the company.
According to Manjunath, WildTrails gets up to 100 app installs and 500 unique web visits every day. As of May 2019, WildTrails had more than 60,000 app installs across ioS and Android.
“We have served more than 500 groups already,” Manjunath says.
The founders claim a revenue run rate of around Rs 3 crore a year and say the company has been growing 100 percent year on year.
Royal Bengal Tigers in Ranthambore
Plans for the future
WildTrails is now focusing on getting data and platform play in Africa. They are also planning to market Indian safaris to the western world.
“We have now ventured into Africa and plan to cover all of Africa and target South America by next year,” Manjunath says.