Sunday, October 26, 2014

Mobile Phones Helping Save Lives of People from Indian Elephant Encounters

Indian elephants in tea fields

It has recently been reported that mobile phones are being used at an increasing rate in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu to cut down the conflict between elephants and people living near their habitat. Leading in this technological revolution is Ananda Kumar of the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF), who pointed out that elephants have killed as many as 39 people from 1993 to 2013. He further added that 30 of those deaths occurred as a result of people not being aware of the elephants' presence. Initially, in 2002, Dr. Kumar and the NCF used a local cable network to warn the local villagers about the elephants' presence which led to two tribal watchers being hired to track the animals in a hill station called Valparai. The location where the elephants were sighted was recorded and shown on Valparai Television (VTV) through a news ticker at the bottom of the television screen. However, the strategy of using the cable television began to lose its purpose which prompted Dr. Kumar to employ mobile technology. He began sending out mass text alerts to subscribers to warn them of the elephants and eventually the number of subscribers increased. In addition, Dr. Kumar and his team also helped set up beacons to alert people during late evening hours when elephants move through tea estates. The way this works is when an elephant or a herd of elephants are in the vicinity, a call or text message sent either by NCF or anonymous villagers would turn on the beacons which give off a blinking red light to warn people moving around at night. Furthermore, Dr. Kumar and his team also maintains a comprehensive database of each subscriber and place of residence for over 2,000 people and prepares maps that recognize numerous corridors through which elephants move. This is also covered with maps of villages to analyze areas that are most sensitive to encounters with elephants. The hard work implemented by Dr. Kumar and the NCF has paid off. Between 2002 and 2007, there were no incidences of human deaths from elephant encounters for 31 months. In addition, property damage by elephants decreased significantly in 2011 and 2013. The advantage of Dr. Kumar's work is that interventions are maintained by the community and based on considerable conversations with them using current technology that is easily managed. The program is financed by a U.K-based charity called Elephant Family and some local tea plantations.
An elephant caught on a rampage in Karnataka

The measurements conducted by Dr. Kumar and the NCF are shining examples of how to take necessary steps to prevent any fatal encounters between people and animals and ensure peace and harmony between the two species. Human-wildlife conflict is a growing problem in India with accelerated urbanization and clearing of land. A recent report by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) indicated that almost 1,000 people were killed in Assam, Maharashtra, and Orissa in conflicts with wild animals between 2009 and 2011. Among the animals that were known to kill people were elephants. However, in Tamil Nadu's Valparai Hill Station, there is a stark contrast to the ongoing fatal encounters between people and animals due to the extraordinary work put by Dr. Kumar and the NCF thanks to the use of advanced technology and extensive communication with local villagers. One example of this outstanding achievement occurred when Dr. Kumar received a call from a village woman in the middle of the night after she saw an elephant outside her house and was worried that her one-month old child's crying might excite the animal. In response, Dr. Kumar encouraged the woman to keep making noise to show that there are people inside and advised her not to go out in the middle of the night. In the meantime, a range officer arrived at the spot to help her and the elephant went away. The following morning, the woman called Dr. Kumar and thanked her him for saving her child. This just one of the few success stories in which people and animals are able to coexist peacefully. However, elsewhere in India there are numerous incidents of human-wildlife conflicts resulting in human and animal deaths as the country continues lose 300 acres of forests and other habitats per day to roads, highways, and mining. With so much shrinking of habitat, it is very crucial that Dr. Kumar's conservation model needs to be simulated in other parts of India where the human-wildlife conflict remains high. Hopefully, this conservation model will also help in curbing similar situations outside India in other places like Africa, Southeast Asia, Sri Lanka, etc.

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