Treading lightly around jumbos (India, Valparai)


Hamsa Darga, Deccan Herald

Date Published

Nestled in the captivating Anamalai ranges, spanning over 220 square kilometres, is the scenic town of Valparai.Home to elephants and humans for decades, its forests were cleared to make way for tea and coffee plantations during the British Raj, which means people have lived and worked here for over 120 years now. Continuous deforestation measures have resulted in fragmented forests, which means that elephants have to pass through the areas that are now populated by humans.

While this has led to some instances of property damage, occasional accidental encounters between humans and elephants have turned fatal. Since 1994, there have been 41 human deaths due to such encounters in this region. On an average, property damage incidents were recorded to be around 135 per year. Measures premised on a sophisticated understanding of the situation were required to alleviate these concerns.

Around 13 years ago, Ananda Kumar, a scientist with the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF), set out to find solutions specific to the landscape and its inhabitants. He engaged in dialogues with the local residents and to gain a deeper perspective, he studied several aspects of the nature of elephants and people.

Ever since, he has been working interminably to find ways to mitigate the issues surrounding human-elephant interaction. One of the means to achieve this was by disseminating information on elephant presence. This, he realised, could potentially save lives.

Signalling the presence

Hence, the first warning system was devised in 2006. Information was displayed as a crawl on local cable TV. Although this worked well, over a period of time, the more popular DTH systems were replacing local cable TV. This gradually necessitated a new warning system.

In 2011, with the help of Gupshup Enterprises, a bulk SMS system was introduced to send out information as text messages to the subscribed users. Mobile phones were becoming more prevalent, proving to be effective channels of communication. Ananda and researcher Ganesh Raghunathan have been implementing these warning systems for many years now.

When the bulk SMS warning system was rolled out, the NCF team was inundated with calls. “Earlier, the calls were mostly to enquire about elephants. Things changed around 2014. Now we have more callers giving us information about elephant presence. Change in calling pattern shows that the people are more willing to participate,” says Ganesh.

The evolving understanding of the team has been strategic to the success of this programme. “We noticed that many people who walk back home from bus-stops, with no real-time information of elephant presence, could be in danger. Thus, we decided to place Global System for Mobile Communication (GSM) lights in a few key locations and use this to warn people of elephant presence in a radius of one or two kilometres,” recalls Ganesh.

These lights were designed in association with Niagara Automation, Coimbatore.
“The GSM-based elephant alert red indicator lights can be switched on by calling the number. Initially, we used to operate these lights, but to encourage local participation and keep it sustainable, we asked the estate representatives to take the charge,” explains Ganesh.

In all, information about elephants comes from four quarters — primarily the NCF team, followed by local residents, the Forest Department and the estate management. Apart from this, the NCF team also has a conflict response unit, wherein their trackers venture out every morning to track movements of the elephants.

Similarly, the forest department has an anti- depredation team which tracks the elephants at night. This team also responds to calls on the Forest Department’s helpline. Sometimes, if the elephants are passing close to residential areas, the team places its vehicle between the elephants and the residents, much in advance, as a precautionary measure.

Generally, in areas where food meant for human consumption is stored, the residents had to deal with a few instances of property damage caused by the elephants. The grocery stores and home kitchens were especially more susceptible.

The NCF team initiated dialogues with the grocery shop owners, and requested them to avoid storing food when the elephants were present in the area. Moreover, the management of some estates have ensured that no work is carried out in the sections of the estate where the elephants are present. Work is resumed only after the elephants move away on their own.

All these changes are taking effect and there is a steady decline in the numbers of incidents. On an average, the number of human deaths has come down from 3.5 to 1.6 per year. Property damage incidents have reduced to 60 per year.

His consistent efforts have gained  Ananda the prestigious Whitley Award (also known as the Green Oscars) this year and the NCF programme has received support from the Whitley Fund for Nature, The Rufford Foundation and Elephant Family.

The NCF team’s accomplishments are a testament to the fact that substantial improvement in the living conditions of people and wildlife can be achieved with the use of improved technology, people’s participation and greater awareness.

A lot of progress has been made but some challenges still remain. Determined people are working constantly to make this unique experiment sustainable for years to come. Hopefully, this unruffled spirit of Valparai will remain for posterity.