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Asian elephant SMS saving Indian lives

Biologist working to bring down the number of human deaths from encounters with Asian elephants through mobile phones.

| Environment, Asia, India

Herds of elephants have to navigate through tea bushes to get to their natural habitat [Vijay Bedi/ Al Jazeera]

By

Bahar Dutt

Bahar Dutt is a conservation biologist and environment journalist. She has reported on global warming in the Arctic and the destruction of rainforests in Indonesia, and closely tracked the annual proceedings of the UN Summit on Climate Change from Copenhagen to Cancun. A recipient of the Green Oscar award, Bahar Dutt is based in New Delhi.

Valparai, Tamil Nadu - Mobile phones are being increasingly used in one of India's southern states to reduce conflict between Asian elephants and the humans who live near their habitat.

Ananda Kumar of the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF) is leading this technological revolution to bring down the number of human casualties from these encounters by sending out mass text alerts to those in the rural areas, where mobile phones are fairly common these days. 

Human-animal conflict is a growing problem with rapid urbanisation and clearing of land. A recent report by the National Crime Records Bureau, between 2009-2011, almost 1,000 people were killed in the states of Assam, Maharashtra and Odisha, in confrontations with wild animals, especially elephants.

This facility has helped save many lives in Valparai

Ramachandran, a senior Field Officer from Karamalai local tea estate

But Valparai, the tiny hill station  in India’s southern state of Tamil Nadu, between 2002 and 2007, saw a gradual decline in numbers with no incidence of human deaths for 31 months.

"I can live with my family happily after I get the elephant messages on his mobile," Ramachandran, a senior Field Officer from Karamalai estate one of the local tea plantations, told Al Jazeera. "This facility has helped save many lives in Valparai."

Valparai lies in the Western Ghats, a mountain range running parallel to the western coast and considered to be one of the ten hotspots of biological diversity in the world. The Valparai plateau, which once contained a large tract of tropical rainforest, is spread over 200 square kilometres with a dense human population of 250,000 people.

Today only 40 fragmented patches are left of these rainforests and over 100 elephants find themselves in a sea of humanity, roads and tea bushes to navigate through to get to their natural habitat thus creating a potential recipe for disaster.

Kumar described an incident where a woman called him in the middle of the night after she saw an elephant standing outside and was worried that her one-month old baby’s cry might agitate it.

"I spoke to her for two hours encouraging her to keep making some noise from inside to indicate that there are people inside and requested her not to venture out in the middle of night," Kumar said. "In the meanwhile, range officer reached the spot to help her. Finally the elephant went away. The next morning she called and kept thanking me that we saved her baby".

Advanced warning

From 1993 to 2013 Kumar said that they have recorded as many as 39 human deaths from encounters with the elephants. But he added that of these, 30 occurred due to the humans not being aware of the elephant’s presence.

That’s when Kumar and the NCF hit upon a simple yet brilliant idea - why not use local cable network to alert the workers about the presence of elephants?

And so in 2002, two tribal watchers were employed to track the herd. Every evening the location was recorded and then flashed on "VTV" - or Valparai Television through the news ticker at the bottom of the screen. The information was provided in the local language ie Tamil.

But Kumar didn’t stop there. Once he noticed that cable television was losing its relevance, he tried another technology that was fast becoming common across rural India. He started sending out mass text alerts to subscribers to alert them of the herd’s presence and soon the number of subscribers went up.

Co-existence with elephants is a journey not a destination

Ananda Kumar, conservation biologist

So how has the government reacted to Kumar and NCF’s interventions? 

"With the coming of an NGO it ensured that there was better coordination in our efforts to resolve human-elephant conflict," Rajeev Srivastava from Forest Department of Tamil Nadu said. "Officers come and go but when you partner with an NGO that has long-term presence you get better results as we have managed to get in Valparai. That's why Kumar's work is a good example of partnership between civil society and the government department".

Kumar also observed that the deaths happened often at night when tea plantation workers are returning home from work or from visits to the market or the nearest town. Late evenings are also the time the elephants chose to move through the tea estates finding them relatively undisturbed in comparison when compared to during the day.

It is the chance encounters of man and animal at this hour that has led to the maximum deaths or fatal injuries. And so Kumar and his team came up with another idea for an advanced warning system - putting up beacons that would blink, quite like a light house sending out warning signals to ships out at sea.

When elephants are in the vicinity a call or text message sent by either NCF or identified individuals in the village turns on the beacon, which emits a blinking red light to warn people who may be moving around at night.

Significant decrease

But the interventions are not just as simple as sending out text alerts. The NCF team checks all light operations every day.

A detailed database of each subscriber, place of residence, for over 2,000 people is maintained, then detailed maps are prepared that identify the frequent corridors through which the elephant herds move and this is overlaid with maps of villages to classify the most vulnerable areas.

Two elephants rampage in India's Karnataka

And the hard work has paid off. In the two years of further data collection in 2011 and 2013 their study showed that the incidents of property being damaged (e.g. houses, buildings or food grain storage centres) had significantly decreased.

The strength of Kumar’s work is that interventions are managed by the community and are based on extensive dialogues with them with the use of existing technology that can be easily managed by them. Their programme is funded by UK-based charity Elephant Family and some local tea plantations.

In a country where 400 people lose their lives annually to elephant conflict, Kumar’s work stands out as a shining example of a conservation success story. But he’s aware his work is not yet done

"Co-existence with elephants is a journey, not a destination," Kumar said.

He realises that his organisation will need to constantly innovate to ensure that the animals and humans are safe. He’s right. Just outside of Valparai, the Asian elephant is facing a tough battle for survival. India on an average loses 300 acres of forests a day to roads, highways and mining projects.

With a shrinking habitat Kumar’s model of living with the elephants will need to be replicated in other areas where conflict is high. For now, this humble, diminutive, man drives his jeep around coffee and tea plantations answering distress calls, as he helps the gentle jumbos survive one text alert at a time.

Follow Bahar Dutt on Twitter: @bahardutt

Source: Al Jazeera

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