Electric fencing can act as a deterrent to elephants, but elephants have shown ingenious tactics to cross them. Save the Elephants, is developing “geo¬fencing” programmes with ESRI. Our Geofencing team is Jake Wall (software programmer) and Bernard Lesowapir (GIS technician). We are now collaborating with Cambridge University through the Darwin Initiative to apply the results to help control crop raiding for the benefit of communities.
Human Elephant Conflict (HEC) refers to the often violent clashes between humans and elephants that result from the competition for space and resources. It is particularly prevalent in Laikipia, a high plateau situated on the equator. Laikipia is dominated by large, historically well run ranches, which are patrolled, secure and highly managed. This provides a wonderful environment for wildlife; however, they are also in close proximity to human settlements and expanding local agriculture. This has led to many problems for small-scale farmers who have suffered raids by herbivores on crops and attacks by predators on livestock. Elephants are expert fence breakers, so are particularly adept at crop-raiding. It is very difficult to contain them without extremely expensive and carefully designed fences. More concerning is the negative attitude that crop-raiding breeds in local communities and the difficulty that it presents for future conservation. Crop raiding is predominantly carried out by bull elephants who are more likely to accept the risks involved in order to benefit from the higher caloric/nutritious food available in a field of maize than the alternative thorny browse. The attacks are usually carefully planned and occur late at night under the cover of darkness.
Geo-fencing refers to virtual fence lines within a computer GIS. In 2006 Save the Elephants erected the first ever virtual elephant fence in East Africa around Ol Pejeta Conservancy, using software from Yrless software company written for African Wildlife Tracking Ltd. The geofence followed the actual fence around the property. When a collared elephant passed through it, an SMS message was sent to the Ol Pejeta animal management team. Each fence break by an elephant resulted in the management team sending a vehicle filled with rangers to chase the elephant back onto the Ol Pejeta property.
This was first tested on a bull elephant, Kimani, who became the focus of the Ol Pejeta management due to his considerable skill in breaking expensive fences. In December 2005 he went on a crop raiding spree that lasted 21 straight nights. The management literally had him in their rifle sights when they saw his tracking collar and called Save the Elephants out of professional courtesy. It gave us the chance to set up the geo-fence and within several weeks Kimani, through the negative reinforcements provided by the rangers each time he left the ranch, had been trained not to break the Ol Pejeta fence. One year later he still has not returned to crop raiding. It is our hope that he learned a lesson and other crop-raiders will respond in a similar fashion.
Fences are erected internally within a server, so there are no expensive maintenance costs. In fact, no physical barrier is needed for geofencing to work. It is important that sufficient negative reinforcement be provided to teach the individual where not to travel. Elephants are highly intelligent and quick to remember. They therefore easily learn where these areas exist. The elephant must also be fitted with a tracking collar or similar device and be within GSM network coverage. The next stage of the geo-fencing project is to develop our own geo-fencing software which will be based on ESRI ArcServer technology.
The refined program will allow us to examine pre-fence breaking behaviour so management teams can act prior to actual fence breakage. Another aspect of the program will allow the formation of a “cadastral” system in Laikipia. Small-scale farmers will be able to register their farm, and the server can then direct sms messages to farmers about approaching elephants, empowering the farmers to protect their own crops rather than having them wake in the morning to a raided field.
We will now refine the system and collaborate with Dr Max Graham of the Cambridge Darwin Initiative Project to try to lower Human. Max has a network of community scouts and a good relationship with local communities that suffer elephant depredations, ideal for the first careful application of geofencing for local benefit. STE’s geofencing early warning system will be tested with the community scouts Max has trained. The intention is to provide small farmers with an alert of the approach of crop raiding elephants tagged with GSM collars. So far we have tagged 8 potential crop raiders in Southern Laikipia