Forest Encroachment Studies using Aerial Maps

Saksham Bhutani

Saksham Bhutani , Marketing Head at Indshine

April 27, 2020


Drones and GIS software in Forestry

Recently, drones have gained popularity in diverse fields, from agriculture to delivery to defence. Forestry is another area where drone application is bringing stupendous results leading to solid decisions in the favour of flora and fauna. Drone technology is becoming increasingly popular in forestry mainly due to the high-resolution data that can be collected flexibly in a short time and at a relatively low price.

Due to the benefits of reduced costs, flexibility in time and space, high accuracy of data and the advantage of no human risks, Drones are getting largely used in forest mapping, forest management planning, canopy height model creation or mapping forest gaps.

Drones aid in finding out about the number of trees, wildlife, and villages in the forest. Information about the total tree count in a forest is a very important dataset for forest management. Knowing the precise number of trees at different points in time ensures the stable growth of the forest. Tree count enables the forest officers to gauge forest health and identify problems at the right time. Stunted growth or unnatural reduction in a number of trees can help them discover issues like disease or encroachment quickly. A quicker discovery of the problem leads to timely action and saving on cost and loss of natural wealth. Aerial imagery captured by drones creates a complete, detailed picture of the forest, providing comprehensive insights and analysis.

Applications of Drones in Forestry

Some of GIS Applications in forests are:

1. Forest Inventory – Prioritizing timber harvesting units by referring to age class and forest type to better measure timber acreage and average estimates.

2. Forest Fires – Plotting out forest fires

3. Deforestation – Gauging deforestation using land cover change in time.

4. Reforestation – Recharging forests through tree planting planning on a map.

5. Forest Heights – Measuring tree heights with altimetry and understanding the biodiversity of parks

6. Cut Lines – Finding cut lines in ortho imagery to find easy access.

7. Illegal Logging – Identify potential illegal activity (Forest Watch)

8. Vegetation Potential – Analyzing tree growth & distribution of vegetation with west/east-facing and aspect data.

9. Leaf Area Index – Summing the total area of leaves per ground unit.

10. Age of Trees – Inventorying the XY position and rings of trees in a database to understand its age.

11. Forest Disease – Mapping the impact of how forest infestations on forests and the economy.

12. Potential Natural Vegetation (PNV) - Measuring vegetation that would be expected given environmental constraints (climate, geomorphology, geology) without human intervention or a hazard event.

Hierarchy of Forest Officials in India

The use of Drone technology for forest inspection is gaining popularity in India as well. With various benefits like reduced costs, time saving and accuracy of data, drones are becoming a 'go to' tool for forest management professionals in India. Using Drones, the Indian officials are able to combat this issue to a large extent. Wildlife protection is also a huge case of concern for forest management officials in India and in this area as well Drones are proving extremely useful by timely monitoring and discovery of unnatural reductions in numbers mainly due to poaching.

Forestry Hierarchy in India

In forest departments, hierarchy starts from the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests and ends at Forest Watcher. For every forest, a Forest Officer is allocated by the Centre who reports to the Principal Chief Conservator who is an IAS officer. He reports to the CM. And an IFS officer reports to the IAS officer. And several local authorities report to the IFS officer who help in the management and the local level.

For effective management of the forest area and regulate wildlife, forest land and trees it is necessary to keep everyone in the loop. Every single person in the hierarchy must understand the importance of highly accurate data obtained through Drones and thus participate in the process wholeheartedly. Forest officers, guards and watchers are usually the first to detect discrepancies in forests and their inputs remain valuable for forest management.

Encroachment is a big Issue

Image Credits : [New Indian Express](

Encroachment of forest land for cultivation and other purposes is a huge cause of concern in India. The skewed ratio between the rising population and available land for human inhabitation is a leading cause of distress among people and consequent land encroachment. Even though strict regulations are at place, the task of controlling the menace is humongous. The authorities feel the constant pressure of monitoring the boundaries, especially in places where the land prices are very high.

National Parks are more susceptible to encroachment because of their aversion towards putting walls & fences to give the wildlife a free rein. Even if fencing is done correctly in some National Parks, people break in and capture forest land by cutting down trees. This is a huge risk to biodiversity and wildlife.

What’s worse is that most of the times it becomes difficult for the officials to understand that the land has been encroached because there are no clear-cut boundaries. Building a wall is not preferred because it is expensive. Such encroachment issues prevail highly in Mumbai because the land prices are high there.

Sanjay Gandhi National Park: A Case Study

Sanjay Gandhi National Park

Sanjay Gandhi National Park is one forest area in Mumbai which is facing the brunt of encroachment. The land of the park gets periodically encroached by the villagers staying nearby. The perimeter of the Park is 108 km and the area is 30 sq. km. It includes 5 Villages.

The villagers, periodically, cut down a few trees and acquire the land without the officials realizing it. This had become a huge cause of concern for the forest department officials.

Drones come to rescue

Periodic images captured by drones, which could map the villages, the boundaries, number of trees could largely help the officials in managing the encroachment issue. Drone data could help them identify discrepancies quickly and take action. The forest department decided to have the images in every 3 months. These images could serve as evidence of encroachment which was earlier difficult to prove. Due to lack of concrete evidence, many a times, even if an encroachment gets detected, action cannot be taken. Drone imagery can resolve this problem.

Such intervention could bring unimaginable precision in forest management. Though at a nascent stage, if drone-based surveillance becomes a regular phenomenon in forestry, then risks to our flora and fauna will be largely reduced.

Here's an interactive drone maps of SGNP overlayed with land boundary. For more open GIS datasets refer to Indshine project library.

GIS software Requirements and Specifications

Listing out some of the requirements posed by forest officials for GIS application:

  • Should allow restricted uses with defined permissions where there subordinates with only view rights and management with edit rights.

GIS software Requirements and Specifications in Forestry

  • Should be able to display drone maps on mobile and have a GPS feature for letting them locate their position during field visits.
  • Should be able to do map analysis with encroachment studies.
  • Should allow encroachment to be marked with different colors.
  • Should be able to demarcate area of encroached land.
  • Allow multiple officials to utilise it for planning and monitoring purpose.
  • Preferable to be a desktop application (Indshine desktop is available here)

Cost-Benefit Analysis of Solution

Cost benefit analysis of solution in Forestry

1. Activity

  • Drone mapping for whole SGNP (100 sqkm) in first round.
  • Every 3 months drone mapping in the probable areas of encroachment.
  • Mapping of approx. 40,000 households.

2. Cost

  • Yearly cost of Drone Mapping [(32K USD) (First Round) + (5800 USD) + (5800 USD) + (5800 USD) (for consequent 3 rounds)] = 49400 USD
  • Yearly cost of GIS Application: 600 USD refer to Indshine pricing
  • Total yearly cost = 50K USD

3. Benefit

  • Number of non-official houses = 360
  • Average house area = 5m*5m
  • Area under encroachment = 100m*100m
  • Price of Encroached Land = 500K USD (Based on Mumbai land prices, with average 50 USD per sqm)
  • Protection of Flora and Fauna biodiversity (intangible benefit)

Contributors : Deepali Joshi, Shimonti Paul, Shashank Tewari

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