Elephant Family has recently partnered with the Nature Conservation Foundation in the Anamalai Hills of southern India on a project that is literally a matter of life or death. Anamalai means “elephant hill” as this region has historically been an elephant stronghold. Yet much of their forest home has been cleared for commercial tea, coffee, and cardamom plantations, which now chequer the landscape, particularly on the Valparai Plateau. The plantations are of little interest to the elephants as anything other than a route to another part of what is left of the forest. But any chance encounter between elephants and people in the plantations can be deadly. Building on the Nature Conservation Foundation’s initiatives to date, their project with Elephant Family will therefore develop a number of early-warning systems to prevent such encounters.
The urgent need for this project was illustrated very tragically just last month, when three women workers of one of the tea plantations were trampled to death by a herd of three elephants. The local newspapers quickly picked up on the incident and reported how a group of ten tea-pickers were on their way to have their daily pickings weighed when the three elephants emerged from the nearby forest and charged them, killing three of them while the other seven managed to escape. One of the reports went on to describe how the elephants remained in the area for some time afterwards, delaying the recovery of their bodies.
However, M. Ananda Kumar, the project coordinator for the Nature Conservation Foundation, has subsequently pointed out that this was the first such incident that took place during the day in the tea plantations for more than 16 years, and that the newspapers were not telling the whole story. According to eyewitnesses, there were 24 people who were busy picking tea that day near a patch of forest, and that three of the women fell short of the required daily amount. While others were busy weighing the tea, they were asked to pick more right near the edge of the forest. Nobody had realised that elephants were inside the strip of forest, which runs along a stream that is the elephants’ only source of water in the area. Everybody was therefore understandably shocked when the elephants suddenly emerged – perhaps due to disturbance – and many of the workers began shouting and running away. Equally surprised, two of the elephants gave a bluff charge, but quickly went back. Having picked extra tea the three women then appeared right in the middle of the fracas without realising the elephants were there, and this led to the tragic accident.
Anand believes that the incident would have been easily avoided if people had been aware that elephants were in the forest, and that his project with Elephant Family could prevent such accidents in the future. He is also very conscious of how the local media are increasingly portraying the elephants as a dangerous, malevolent presence, and that this is only making things worse. Emotions are understandably running high, and with dangerous encounters between people and elephants increasing, the workers are demanding that the authorities and plantation managers intervene. But from all accounts this has led to very little action so far. Anand is meanwhile continuing to investigate exactly what happened so that he can target his initiatives more effectively.
The Nature Conservation Foundation has already significantly reduced the number of dangerous encounters between people and elephants, by developing ways of sharing information on the whereabouts of elephants between the plantation workers, local tribal communities, women self-help groups and others. Building on their success, the partnership with Elephant Family will enable them to develop this information system. Reports on the movements of elephants over the local media will be incorporated into the system, along with a variety of early-warning systems to alert people to the presence of elephants. The latter include red warning lights in the plantations and settlements, which give people plenty of time to clear the area and allow the elephants to pass. These can be triggered by trip-wires or remotely by mobile phone. In this way Anand expects to show how it’s possible for people and elephants to coexist peacefully, offering hope for other areas where loss of habitat has forced elephants into dangerous encounters with people.
Read one of the original news reports here.
The above picture, courtesy of the Nature Conservation Foundation, shows how extreme the situation can be for elephants and people on the Valparai Plateau.
As festive lights go up elsewhere around the world, in southern India some very different lights are going up in plantations bordering elephant habitat. However, far from being festive, these lights could be a matter of life or death for the residents of the Valparai Plateau, as they will warn of the presence of elephants in the vicinity, especially after dark, thereby ensuring that any unfortunate surprise encounters do not occur.
The Valparai Plateau lies within the Anamalai Hills, a historical elephant stronghold in the state of Tamil Nadu. Today the plateau in particular has become a mosaic of forest and plantations – especially tea, coffee and cardamom – and elephants routinely pass through the plantations. On the whole the elephants and people go about their business with mutual respect and tolerance of each other. However, any chance encounter can prove fatal, and indeed three plantation workers were killed by elephants in such circumstances in January.
Earlier this year Elephant Family partnered with the Nature Conservation Foundation in the Valparai Plateau on a number of measures to prevent such fatalities and ensure an even more peaceful coexistence between people and elephants. The team there has established Conflict Response Units to track the daily elephant movements through the plateau, and this information is relayed to the local population in a number of different ways. For some time it has been fed into the local Valparai TV station, which carries the information on their broadcasts after 4pm in a scrawl across the bottom of the screen, letting people know which areas to avoid after dark. Advice on what to do and what behaviour to look for in an encounter with elephants is also provided in a further bid to prevent casualties. This information is thought to reach 25,000 families across the plateau.
A few months ago the team began sending text messages in bulk to inform key individuals of the elephants’ whereabouts. They now have more than 1,000 mobile numbers, which are grouped according to the different plantations. Message recipients include managers, workers, watchmen, members of women self-help groups of the respective plantations, news reporters, and Forest Department personnel. Information is sent in both English and Tamil and includes the name of the plantation the elephants are passing through, the precise field number, and any other useful landmarks that could be used to help avoid the elephants. The key contacts then spread the message in the area to those concerned. With the support of GUPSHUP Enterprises and Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd, a government-owned telecommunication company that has brought out a low-cost texting service, the scheme is proving very popular. Many people have asked to receive the messages so they can plan their evening activities around the movements of the elephants!
More recently, to add to the above measures, early warning lights are being installed in prominent locations across the plateau. These indicators have a built-in SIM card with Global System for Mobile Communication (GSM) technology, such that they can be operated remotely with a mobile phone, by texting the individual number of the indicator. Once activated the red LED lights then flash at regular intervals to warn people of the presence of elephants, giving sufficient time to vacate the area safely.
This scheme has the support of the local plantations, and 15 lights have now been installed. The first to go up were three in the plantations of Parry-Agro Industries Limited, including the one pictured above. These have been followed with lights in the plantations of the Bombay Burma Trading Corporation Ltd (which has even gone one step further in support of the project and actually paid for the lights installed on their property) and TATA Coffee Ltd. More will soon be installed in the government-owned TANTEA plantations.
The impacts of all these measures are now being closely monitored, and the results will be disseminated through meetings with the local plantation management, Forest Department personnel, policy makers, and media. They are almost certainly already saving lives on the Valparai Plateau and offer the prospect of saving lives and encouraging the coexistence of people and elephants elsewhere in India and beyond wherever the two have been forced to live cheek by jowl.
Finding suitable ways to prevent clashes between people and elephants is a rapidly growing challenge for Asian elephant conservation, as the growth of human populations and the disappearance of forests are increasingly forcing the two to live cheek by jowl. There are no easy solutions to what has become one of the greatest threats to Asian elephants, and usually a variety of measures need deploying according to the local situation. Even these may not work for long. Elephant Family is therefore constantly looking to invest in innovative approaches using the latest technology, and in Anand Kumar of the Nature Conservation Foundation we have done just that to great effect. The Elephant Information System that he and his team have introduced to the Valparai Plateau in southern India has been greatly received and is now being adopted by others elsewhere. Keeping people up to date on the whereabouts of elephants on the plateau via text message, TV announcements and recently-installed warning lights is saving lives, and earlier this year earned Anand one of the prestigious Carl Zeiss Wildlife Conservation Awards 2012.
It was just towards the end of last year that we reported on the new warning lights that Anand and his team were installing. These are operated remotely by mobile phone when elephants are in the area, warning people to keep away or get somewhere safe until the elephants pass. The Valparai Plateau is a patchwork of plantations and forest patches within the wider elephant stronghold of Tamil Nadu’s Anamalai Hills, and when elephants pass through the plantations any chance encounter with somebody could prove fatal for that person. The lights are therefore placed in prominent locations so that they can be seen from great distances, like the one pictured above. Twenty have now been installed within the plantations of Parry Agro Industries, TATA Coffee Ltd., and the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation. They have proved so popular and effective that other companies are now keen to have them installed, including the Woodbriar Company for example, which has approached Anand for the lights, having previously been uninterested. The Tamil Nadu Forest Department has meanwhile bought five lights for installation in the Jay Shree tea estates, and the state government has passed an order to have the lights installed throughout the state. It was realising this potential wider that so attracted us to the project in the first place.
The project relies on having accurate information on the elephants’ whereabouts, and while much of this comes from the project’s Conflict Response Unit, which tracks the elephants’ movements on a daily basis, the residents are increasingly providing the information; it is now more often the responsible members of the local communities that are operating the warning lights. The database of people to whom text messages are sent (with the ongoing support of GUPSHUP Enterprises) regarding elephant presence has meanwhile grown to 2,400, increasing the efficiency of the flow of information in both directions, while the scrolling messages on Valparai TV continue to reach as many as 25,000 families.
These measures are significantly reducing the number of human fatalities on the Valparai Plateau, and it is this success, together with the strong levels of community support and the innovative techniques, that earned Anand the Carl Zeiss Wildlife Conservation Award 2012. In his acceptance presentation he stressed that there are no problem elephants, just problem locations that need to be addressed with a sound scientific approach at the landscape level.
Success begets success, and we have recently heard the incredibly positive news that this approach has convinced the state government to close down 197 hectares of state-owned tea estates on the Valparai Plateau, following observations that this is a particular important area for elephants, where human lives were at risk if it remained as a tea estate. This significant decision will prevent any further unnecessary human fatalities, and enable elephants to move more freely across the plateau, thereby securing greater connections within the wider Anamalai elephant landscape.
Photo courtesy of Kalyan Varma