By Rahul Ranjan Sinha:
High in the Anamalai hills of Tamil Nadu, the fragments of rainforest are home to thousands of wild elephants, who follow an elephant corridor through patches of forest area. The corridor borders the Valparai tea gardens below. Groomed a lush green, they cover the lower slopes, and the homes of tea estate workers cluster on the valley floor.
Although the scene is idyllic, as the human population of Valparai grew, so did the cases of human-elephant conflict. With a population of 71,000 people, an average of three people a year were killed by elephants. Crop loss was a constant problem, and villagers were unable to gather forest products for fuel and food. Meanwhile, self-defence and retaliation contributed to a 30% decline in the area’s elephant population in just five years.
It is a problem across India where development has restricted elephant habitat to just 3.5% of its original extent, and has brought humans and elephants in ever closer proximity. A nationwide study in 2017 showed that the number of elephants had decreased by 10% in just five years, with serious implications for the global population of Asian elephants, a species whose existence is already endangered.
But even as threats to elephant survival mount, solutions are emerging and technology plays an important role.
Some of these solutions have been pioneered in Valparai, where Indian conservationists, including the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI), developed tactics that use low-cost mobile phone technology to prevent the dangerous encounters. The results have been tangible, reducing the number of human deaths in the tea estate valley from three persons to one person a year. This is a significant breakthrough, achieved using technology already in people’s hands. The approach can and should be scaled to all areas where human-elephant conflicts erupt.
Of course, mitigation of human-elephant conflicts would not entirely safeguard elephants, but it would protect human lives and property and dramatically improve the prospects for another key conservation strategy: the protection of elephant corridors.
Elephant corridors are vital natural habitat linkages that wildlife use to move through and between larger protected forests, as they migrate and forage for food and water. The Wildlife Trust of India has mapped 101 of these corridors across India. Last August, the organisation launched a 15-month campaign, called ‘Gaj Yatra’ to begin to secure the elephant corridors and minimize human-elephant conflicts.
To be sure, technology alone will not solve the problem. A recent study by the Grameen Foundation for WTI found that 58% of adults and 54% of children felt that conserving elephants is important, and 45% of adults and children felt that human and elephant coexistence is possible. Support for conservation was strongest among those households that earned over US$4.00 a day, and among those with more years of education.
The study also showed that the single biggest influence on people’s attitude toward elephant conservation was the importance given to it by the community and political leaders, and people’s perception of their leaders’ seriousness about the issue.
Putting the tools of technology in people’s hands is one way to demonstrate that seriousness. Indeed, solutions adopted in the Valparai tea estate could be replicated elsewhere. They centre around the design of an early warning system. It includes: text messaging alerts in English and Tamil, notifying participants to the presence of elephants within a two-kilometre radius; complimentary voice calling to reach villagers who were illiterate; ground lights that operate as elephant alert indicators, and are activated by local volunteers who act as sentinels; and use of local television channels to inform people about the movement of elephants near human settlements.
Valparai is an area of beauty without boundaries. To maintain this beauty in all its dimensions – human, wildlife and forest – we must overcome the lack of information about the movement of elephants, and protect elephants, people and people’s property. Smart use of mobile technology can help to achieve this, and replicating the Valparai approach in other parts of India can ease the way to co-existence.
Once alerted to the presence of elephants, local people avoided going near the area and, in some cases, they also drove away the elephants. A person, while pointing to the densely forested upper hills, noted that whenever elephants are in the fringe forests, locals receive the calls on their mobile phones and know to avoid the upper areas for collecting woods.
Rahul Ranjan Sinha is a tech enthusiast and conducts research on social and behavioural issues. He works with the Client Insights for Impact team at Grameen Foundation India.