Threats in tea plantations
When you live in elephant corridors, including small towns in the Anamalais, encountering large animals is almost a given. What you do next determines life or death. The scenario plays on the minds of every tea plantation worker who lives and works in the verdant undulating slopes of Valparai, a picturesque town in the massive Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve.
“Elephant attacks happen only when the elephant is spooked,” a tea planter tells me. “It is usually because some plantation worker surprises a lone elephant on the way home. You try to back off but have no chance if the elephant decides to charge.”
“Every trip we make requires an extra step, especially after dark,” says Sheela, a tea picker in her 30s who lives and works on a tea plantation. “When I need to attend a wedding in town, take my child to the hospital in the city, or when my husband wants to go to town to buy a lightbulb, we always have to ask ourselves, ‘Will there be an elephant on the way and how can I prevent it from attacking me?’ More often than not, we don’t go out after dark.”
Developing warning systems
Valparai has a population of some 70,000 people and about 130 elephants. “The forests in the Nilgiris belonged to the elephants long before the British showed up and converted entire mountain slopes into tea plantations,” says Ananda Kumar, a scientist at the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF). “The problem is that the humans who work for these British tea companies have been here for centuries, so we cannot evict them and rewild these mountains into the shola forests they once were. Humans and elephants have no choice but to co-exist here.” As Conservation India reports, communities are evolving techniques to preserve not just wildlife but also their own lives and livelihoods.
The SMS early warning system has evolved over several years. Today, it goes out to 4,500 tea workers and their families. It began with SMS warnings as opposed to any app-based system because some elderly (and poor) Indians have rudimentary phones, not a smartphone. Even so, there were occasions when tea planters couldn’t receive the SMS warning because service was spotty. In such situations, how does one warn people?
One solution the tea companies came up with was to install tall warning lamps on the slopes. Anyone who received the elephant warning SMS or sighted an elephant could trigger a light switch that caused blinking red lights on the slopes. “A lot of multinational tea trading companies are interested in preserving human and elephant lives. When an elderly tribal man who doesn’t own a phone walks about these slopes, he will see the blinking red lights and immediately know that elephants are around,” says Kumar. “He can take alternative routes or stay home.”
The warning system was and remains successful, but it is not foolproof. Deaths declined, so NCF replicated the programme in the Gudalur area. But these are tiny hamlets. In larger areas such as Hassan, elephant deaths still occur.
How do we tackle this vexing and complex problem of preserving lives? This was the problem the NCF, an NGO based in the Nilgiris, had to solve. The solution they came up with involved technology, tea pickers, and the companies that employed them. First, they collated a database of cell phone numbers of all the poor farmers, tribals, tea workers, and forest guards who lived in the mountains. Whenever anyone saw elephants crossing the land, an SMS would be sent out en masse. “Elephants in tea plantation 10” was enough to warn people who may be stepping out of their homes or going to that area.