Giving Elephants the Space They Need, One SMS at a Time

Multiple states in India are taking to an SMS-based early warning system that informs people in an area about the movement of elephants.

Elephants prefer to stay within forested areas during the day and stray out only after dusk. Credit:seth0s/pixabay

Elephants prefer to stay within forested areas during the day and stray out only after dusk. Credit:seth0s/pixabay

In 2010, the elephant was declared as the national heritage animal of India, a title befitting an animal that has been a part of this country’s religious, cultural and social legacy since Harappa. However, these millennia-old ties have weakened with time as the human population has boomed and the contest for natural resources has intensified. In elephant-range states like Tamil Nadu, Assam, West Bengal, Kerala and Karnataka, the human-elephant relationship is dominated by discord and conflict today.

In this context, neither people nor the elephants can be said to be trespassing, at least not at first glance. As M. Ananda Kumar, a wildlife scientist with the Nature Conservation Foundation, says, the problem is not the animal but the situation. It is to tackle this tricky situation and prevent it from escalating that Kumar and his team devised an early warning system a few years ago that’s since been adapted by West Bengal and Kerala, among others.

Texting out of trouble

For the people of West Midnapore, Bankura and Purulia, living with elephants doesn’t come easy. The three districts constitute a traditional paddy cultivation belt that lies adjacent to the dense forests of the states of Jharkhand and Odisha. A few decades ago, the same region was covered with thick sal forests and was home to numerous elephant herds, both of which were put paid to by urbanisation. But in the 1980s, elephant herds from the Dalma Wildlife Sanctuary in Jharkhand started visiting south Bengal again. They initially numbered between 20 and 50 but the numbers have only been increasing since.

In his study on human-elephant conflicts in south Bengal in 2009-2012, Subhamay Chanda, a forest officer in the Sunderbans, observed how two features of the landscape encouraged the jumbo migration: change in cultivation patterns from mostly rain fed to year-round irrigation agriculture and, second, an afforestation drive carried out by the forest department and local communities in a joint forest management (JFM) programme. This drive converted degraded lands into forested areas. The elephants thus had adequate cover to hide in and adequate food from the lush fields around them.

Today, there are an estimated 140-150 elephants in south Bengal, including the migratory elephants from Dalma, the resident elephant population and a third group of elephants that migrated from Odisha through the Mayurjharna elephant reserve. But regardless of the group, human-elephant encounters have caused widespread damage to lives (both human and animal) and livelihoods. Moreover, victimised villagers have turned their ire on the forest staff for their inability to tame the wild elephants.

In Bankura alone, according to reports, the forest department has assessed 1,598 hectares of crop damage and 1,677 houses destroyed by elephants in 2015. In Midnapore in the same year, 500 hectares of cropland was damaged. The total compensation paid to villagers was Rs 1.21 crore. As for loss of lives: 108 people died in the state in 2015 alone (of which 71 were in south Bengal) while 14 elephants were (deliberately) electrocuted. In 2016, 29 people were killed in Bankura. Five have already died in 2017.

In all, despite West Bengal harbouring only 2% of the country’s wild-elephant population, the state has over 20% of the total human deaths.

Multiple mitigation tactics have been tried and have failed to deliver: trenches, bursting crackers, installing electric fences, etc. Even using a specifically trained village task force to chase herds away didn’t work. Under extreme circumstances, ‘rogue elephants’ have also been hunted and killed.

So in an effort to break from grisly tradition as well as pursue a more peaceful, technologically assisted solution, the West Bengal government has decided to do things differently from this year.

One such solution uses SMSes. In Bankura, a person can now learn of the movement and sightings of elephants by giving a missed call to a designated number (+919015181881). In West Midnapore district, bulk SMS alerts are being sent to administrative and panchayat officials and to members of the forest protection committee (FPC), who relay the information to locals and travellers. The idea is to help people avoid accidental encounters with herds.

This isn’t the first time this system has been tried. In Valparai, Tamil Nadu, the system – developed by Kumar and his colleague Ganesh Raghunathan in 2002 – has almost completely eliminated accidental encounters.

In the Valparai data as well as through surveys, the duo found that elephants preferred to stay within forested areas during the day and stray out only after dusk. They would cut through routes cleared for the people to access their plantations because these routes would also have fragmented the forests. And it was here that surprise encounters would occur.

“During the course of the study it became more and more evident that the local residents had a perception of exaggerated numbers of elephants using the plantation landscape,” Raghunathan told The Wire. “As there was no prior information on the location of elephants, any sighting of an elephant caused surprise and fear in people.”

He and Kumar realised that informing people of the presence of elephants could help them avoid these areas. Subsequently, estate workers, plantation managers, the media and the Tamil Nadu Forest Department met and began to plan an early warning system. The first iteration was a word-of-mouth system where those tracking elephants would pass on info to local TV channels, which would display it as a ticker. A second iteration switched to mobile networks, with the SMS used to relay updates.

Community participation

Raghunathan said, “The SMS system created a ‘my message’ attitude among the people and a dedicated helpline was set up so people could reach out for help or communicate sightings of elephants. This brought people closer than before to jointly work towards sharing information on elephants and inculcate certain changes to their lifestyle to avoid negative interactions with elephants.”

Mobile-operated ‘red alert’ indicators were also set up at vantage locations to guide those without phones, such as schoolchildren, and they have been fully operational since 2013. In early 2016, a collaboration with the Tamil Nadu State Transport Corporation brought these announcements into public transport buses as well.

The SMS service, which began in July 2011, now reaches 4,800 families in Valparai everyday. Between 1994 to 2002, about three people were being killed in elephant encounters every year; since 2011, this number has dropped to one per year, with no incidents of injuries or fatalities reported in 2016.

Ultimately, despite plantations fragmenting their habitats, elephants now have their much-needed connections to forests as well.

Can the same success be replicated in West Bengal? Raghunathan feels confrontational situations can be avoided through an early warning system such as an SMS, but that every place also needs its location-specific measures.

“Some systems such as SMS/voice call alert systems will work in most places. The most important thing to do along with these early warning systems is to engage and regularly interact with local people and respond quickly to situations where help is required,” Raghunathan said. “Within a distance of 50 to 100 km, we see a lot of differences in landscape, vegetation and people. So it is very important to use location specific measures rather than blindly replicating methods that have worked in other states or countries.”

So, the West Bengal government is not relying on SMSes alone. As another unique countermeasure, the forest department has been tasked with constructing toilets in the region so that villagers don’t have to defecate in the open and accidentally bump into an elephant. The compensation given to villagers has been hiked from Rs 1 lakh to Rs 2.5 lakh. Special vehicles equipped with gadgets to warn, intervene or provide prompt help ahead of an impending encounter have also been deployed. Only time will tell if these measures are effective.

The early warning system is also being used in Kerala this year, since the severe drought has brought animals closer to human settlements. In Wayanad district in north Kerala, a 72% rainfall deficit rainfall over the last two monsoons has forced elephants, bisons, deer and boars to regular enter villages. The banks of the Kabani, once home to around 800 elephants, now hosts fewer than 120 because the river is drying up. As a result, some elephants have even been seen to travel 7-8 km inside human areas.

In response, the system is being used around the Wayanad Wildlife sanctuary as a pilot project by the forest department. A 24-hour SMS alert centre also has been set up by Nature Conservation Foundation at the rapid response team’s office at Sulthan Bathery. Apart from texts, the team is communicating through LED boards installed in the villages of Aranappara, Bavaly, Valluvadi and Thottamoola. Similar measures are also set to be introduced in the Mannarkkad, Silent Valley and Nilambur (south) forest divisions.

Atula Gupta is a science writer and editor. She runs a web publication focussing on endangered wildlife of India. She is also the author of Environment Science Essentials, a set of books for schoolchildren.

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