Making Way For Elephants In India

By Ananda Bannerjee August 14, 2020

Human-elephant conflict has been rising all over the country primarily due to the increasing spread of people into areas occupied by the wildlife. Every year human-elephant conflict (HEC) takes around 400 human lives and (that of) around 100 elephants, ac

Making Way For Elephants In India
Making Way For Elephants In India.

This has reduced natural forest cover over the years, affecting elephants. As forests become more fragmented or are converted to plantations, elephant migratory and feeding patterns are getting disrupted. Apart from crop damage, people have been getting killed and injured in all the elephant-range states in the country— Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Kerala, Maharashtra, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Orissa, Tamil Nadu, Tripura, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal.

Mitigation exercises are fairly traditional—drum-beating, noise-making, fire crackers, lights and torches; physical barriers such as stone walls, electric fencing, trenches; engaging “koonkies” or trained elephants, to drive the herds back into the forest. But no one method has worked as a stand-alone solution for conflict resolution. Elephants are in any case intelligent and adaptable—techniques that were initially successful lose their effectiveness over time.

Conflict in the Coffee Country

In the Anamala hills in the Western Ghats in Tamil Nadu lies the town of Valparai with 200 square kilometres of coffee, tea, cardamom and eucalyptus plantations. Anamalai means Elephant Hills in Tamil. This misty rainforest is a biodiversity hot spot and well-known pachyderm country and reputed for its tiger reserves, wildlife sanctuaries and reserved forest. There was a time when Valparai used to witness an average of three-four human deaths as wild pachyderms, whose old migration routes were cut off, used the tea estates giving rise to human-animal conflict.

But the past decade has seen an ingenious advance warning system that has worked well to save people’s lives and reduce damage to property.

SMS for Elephant Alert

Inspired by a real life incident, the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF), a Mysore-based NGO working on wildlife conservation, put in place an early warning system, a unique way of alerting its residents of impending danger of a wild herd. The person behind the project, M. Ananda Kumar, research associate with NCF whose area of specialization is human-elephant conflict, narrates the incident that helped NCF put in place the early warning system to mitigate fatal encounters.

One night the watchman at the Parry Agro tea factory in Valparai 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 drastically,” says Kumar. “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 was the main reason for fatal encounters.”

The warning system developed was 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.

The 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. Later, flasher beacon lights were installed atop tea factories (the highest points in the area) to alert people to the presence of elephants at night.

It is almost 10 years since the warning system has been in place from mid-2011 and is an established routine today with 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.

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). In recent years, early warning system has also been installed in local buses.

The success of the “SMS” system motivated the state forest department to build a “disaster mitigation centre”, with sound alert systems when visibility becomes poor owing to mist and a linear proximity sensor to track elephant movement.

“Most of the human deaths due to elephants occurred either late in the evening or at night when people were unaware of the elephant’s presence and movement,” he said. “We have observed that earlier nearly 82% people died due to conflict with elephants on the main road, passing through plantations. The lack of information about elephants in the vicinity is the main reason for fatal encounters.”

Losing Pachyderm Paths

Keeping the corridors clear is a difficult task with increasing demographic pressure and developmental aspirations, so conflict is in a way inevitable. The greatest damage is the diversion of forests through government policy—large tracts are converted into plantations, or projects such as dams or mines.

Unlike the tiger, which faces extinction, the elephants face a crisis of attrition. Elephant killings, retaliatory in nature, have also been rising, thereby escalating the conservation problem.
Elephants in search of food are increasingly raiding fields adjoining forests and breaking down houses to get at the harvested crop.

In this complex landscape of conservation, Kumar’s communication system of early warning SMSes goes to prove that scaling down man-elephant conflict is not impossible. What’s needed are functional methods that can be applied across all elephant landscapes in India to avoid direct confrontation.

(Ananda Banerjee is an author, journalist and environmentalist. He tweets @protectwildlife)