'SMS' for elephants

An early warning system using SMSes is now showing results, reducing the human-pachyderm conflict in the Anamalai hills of Tamil Nadu.

One night the watchman at the Parry Agro tea factory in Valparai, Tamil Nadu, saw a man getting off a bus at the Iyerpadi bus stand and walking downhill towards the workers’ quarters located near the factory premises. The watchman knew that a herd of elephants was using the same path to move to a forest patch nearby and it would not be safe for the man to walk down. He repeatedly flashed his torch in the direction of the bus stop, trying to signal the unsuspecting man. He succeeded. The watchman’s action probably saved the man’s life.

It certainly formed the basis for an idea that has been responsible for reducing damage to property in the man-pachyderm conflict in the area by 42%, according to M. Ananda Kumar, research associate with Mysore-based Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF), an NGO working on wildlife conservation.Kumar, whose area of specialization is human-elephant conflict, says the incident helped the NCF put in place an early warning system funded by Elephant Family, a global not-for-profit group dedicated to saving the Asian elephant in its habitat, the Tamil Nadu forest department and tea companies in the area, such as Tata Tea Ltd and Jay Shree Tea and Industries Ltd.

“Almost all human deaths due to elephants occurred at night when people were unaware of the elephant’s presence in the plantation area. The lack of information is the main reason for fatal encounters,” says Kumar. Over the past decade, an average of three-four people would die every year in this human-elephant conflict. For Valparai is surrounded by wildlife sanctuaries and tiger reserves, and ever since their old migration routes were cut off, the pachyderms have been using the tea estates.The warning system operates in two ways:

When elephants are sighted, bulk SMS alerts in English and Tamil are sent to people residing within a 2km radius. The information contains details about which estate the pachyderms are present in at that moment. In August 2012, flasher beacon lights were installed atop tea factories (the highest points in the area) to alert people to the presence of elephants at night. The warning system has been in place since mid-2011 but it is now gaining critical mass, with more members of the local community taking part in the effort.

Kumar believes these advance warning systems have worked well to save people’s lives and reduce damage to property. Not a single case of human death was reported in the Valparai area in 2013. In the last two months, however, a man was killed by elephants while collecting firewood in the forest, ignoring the warning system. “In spite of this, we can say that in the last one and a half years there has also been a 20% increase in people’s participation in informing the NCF team on elephant presence in the area,” says Kumar.

Kumar and his team have formed an Elephant Information Network (EIN) involving the local communities, estate workers and tea companies. Both the bulk “SMS” sending and lights are operated by locals who are part of the EIN team. At night, there are two people in charge of each light; each is operated by mobile phones (three rings to turn on the light and seven rings to turn it off; simultaneously “SMS” alerts are also activated once the beacon is switched on). A total of 25 lights have been installed in 25 tea estates of four companies.

Tata Tea Ltd has six tea estates; Jay Shree Tea & Industries Ltd has three; Parry Agro Industries Ltd, six; and The Bombay Burmah Trading Corp. Ltd, 10. The success of the “SMS” system motivated the state forest department to build a “disaster mitigation centre” last year, with sound alert systems when visibility becomes poor owing to mist and a linear proximity sensor to track elephant movement. “A BSNL toll-free helpline number for the community has just become operational,” says Rajeev K. Srivastava, field director and chief conservator of forest, Anamalai Tiger Reserve. Kumar and Srivastava are awaiting funds to install an elephant warning announcement device (again operated by mobile phones) in buses plying through the 92 locations in the area where Kumar’s 10-year research shows there are elephants.

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