Can Mobile Technology Help Mitigate Human-wildlife Conflict?

Human casualties are the dominant cost of human-wildlife conflict in India. A community-based initiative in Valparai attempts to mitigate this and help people and elephants co-exist

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In conservation circles, particularly in India, it is customary to cast humans as the villains of every story about human-wildlife interactions. And mostly, they are. This view is usually taken by well-meaning city-dwellers, who, conservation scientist Dr Krithi Karanth says, “have no clue about what it means to be a tribal or a farmer at the edge of a forest”.

Karanth is an award-winning conservation scientist who bristles with energy without the accompanying dose of indignation. A paper she co-authored (published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences – PNAS) touches upon an important idea in India’s conservation narrative — that human casualties are the dominant cost of human-wildlife conflict in India. “Every year, about 100,000 people, mostly tribals who live at the edges of forests, face injury, death, crop and livestock loss,” says Karanth.

This symbolises both the success and failure of conservation in India. The success story is that tiger, leopard, and elephant numbers have risen in India’s forests, forcing the charismatic predators to venture out of their zones into human habitats. On the other hand, there is a failure of vision for the environment. This failure is causing local and state governments to partition forest corridors, lay roads between buffer zones, and clear forest edges for human cultivation.

Portraying humans as the villains of the narrative may be true on a macro level but not so at the micro, specific, or species level. There is now a marked turn in the approach towards wildlife conservation in India. Managing people with empathy and care, particularly when they have faced serious personal loss, is critical to conserving wildlife. Elephants, for example, are feared by tea planters because they cause crop damage. Leopards are poisoned, electrocuted, or ensnared by tribals who fear they will invade their homes and kill their families. A surprising new predator is the sloth bear, whose numbers have risen dramatically in recent years in some areas.

We now have fertile ground for increased human-wildlife conflict. In 2020, a study about human-wildlife conflict by an independent think-tank (Vidhi Legal) suggested that even poor farmers were likely to underreport conflicts because of high transaction costs and bureaucratic hurdles. Vidhi works with the government to create a compensation framework that is easy for victims to understand and use. As one of the authors of the paper says, “If one of your sheep is killed by a wild wolf, do you want to take the trouble to report it and claim compensation? Probably not. But the resentment adds up”.

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.

Co-existing with elephants

Out of some 30,000 elephants per the latest elephant census in India, Karnataka has the highest number — over 6,000. Most of their habitat is outside the “protected areas”; elephant habitats and corridors have shrunk, and land taken over by humans. The situation is ripe for conflict.

Living with elephants creates a combination of fear and awe. Watching these majestic pachyderms amble through the landscape solo or in small herds is a hair-raising thrill. But dealing with this every day creates unrelenting tension. “Elephants have a high fidelity to their ranges and corridors,” says Kumar. “You cannot put a tea estate in the middle and expect them to change their routes.”

Tea plantations fragment ancient elephant corridors. Wired for movement by habit and season, elephant herds stay in the forests during the day and cross from one forest to another at dusk or night. Most elephant attacks happen during these liminal times.

The paradox is that humans lose in most human-wildlife encounters, whether with a tiger, leopard, sloth bear, or elephant. There is crop damage from ravaging elephants, loss of farm animals when a cow or sheep gets carried away by a leopard and, in some cases, loss of human life. In the long term, the wildlife population loses as human resentment grows, and they begin setting traps, poisoning lakes, or shooting wild animals.

Irate humans living on forest fringes demand that elephants be translocated. Some ask for an “elephant-free zone”. Farmers routinely increase the voltage of electric fences around their crops, electrocuting and killing elephants and other animals. Building fences or capturing elephants is also not the solution because elephants do not occupy isolated habitats but contiguous ones.

The only long-term solution, Kumar says, is to manage and mitigate the conflict, which essentially means teaching humans to stay out of the elephants’ (and harm’s) way. It is the only way we can preserve our lives and the lives of the animal that Hindus worship as the obstacle-removing god.

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