And the ‘Green Oscar’ goes to…

This prestigious Whitley Award winner shows us that with technology, teamwork, creativity, and passion, even elephant-sized problems can be solved!

JAF_5142 ResizeOn 29th April, 2015, India’s very own conservation leader, Mr. Ananda Kumar from the Nature Conservation Foundation received the prestigious Whitley Award (also called the ‘Green Oscar’) from Her Royal Highness Princess Royal for his pioneering work in enabling human-elephant coexistence in southern India. This is a prestigious international nature conservation prize worth £35,000 in project funding, awarded at a ceremony at the Royal Geographical Society, London.

Each year in India, 400 people and more than 100 elephants are killed as a result of human-elephant conflict. Ananda’s Elephant Information Network (EIN) acts as an early warning mechanism to alert people when elephants are nearby, minimizing negative human-elephant interactions, and increasing people’s tolerance towards elephants.

This was achieved with the help of his team at the Nature Conservation Foundation, the Tamil Nadu Forest Department, the tea and coffee plantation owners and staff, and the local residents of Valparai. This truly collective effort has saved the lives of many people and elephants. It is a shining example of how much can be achieved through partnership between stakeholders and using basic technology to achieve major outcomes.

The Alternative caught up with Mr. Kumar to find out more about this unique conservation model.

Could you tell us what triggered the setting up of the Early Warning System? What was the scenario that led to this project?

The Valparai taluk is primarily dominated by tea and coffee plantations planted 120 years ago. The plantations are surrounded by rainforests, which is the primary habitat for elephants. 70,000 people are dependent on these plantations for their livelihood. But this impinges on the critical habitats for elephant movement, blocking their corridors and feeding routes. Elephant movement is interrupted by people’s movement.

In the daytime when people are working, elephants can’t move around. So they move around during late evenings which is when the most number of accidental encounters take place.

Between the years 1994-2015, 41 people died out of which 36 were unaware about the elephant’s presence. This triggered elephant information network to reduce these surprise encounters.

Valparai's Tea Plantations.

Valparai’s Tea Plantations. Photo via (CC) wikipedia user Mcasankar

This is a unique model because it involves a collective effort from everyone involved. How did this come about?

The deaths due to elephant encounters was something that caused enough worry to locals that made them look for a solution. The Tamil Nadu Forest Department was very eager when we came up with our plan and supplied ample support to us. The plantation companies also joined in without hesitation. This was based on the understanding that there are no problem elephants, only problem locations. People and elephants should share space without friction. If we understand problems at a location level, we can design effective mitigation measures, involving collective effort from everyone.

Ananda and his team

Ananda and his team

How does the Early Warning System (EWS) work?

This is a multi-level information network that has been developed over 3 years. EWS is carried out in three ways.

  1. Information on the location of elephants is displayed in local channels as a crawl at the bottom of the screen. The crawl message includes a number that you can call in case you need help.
  2. If there is an elephant wandering near a settlement, intimation is made through bulk SMS – both in english and tamil – to those who are willing to receive it. We have a useful local service provider which has systems in place to ensure that messages are sent out. If the inbox is full, it makes upto 3 tries to send the message again.
  3. We’ve also installed flashing LED lights which can be operated only by 3 registered SIM numbers. This is set up in 24 locations. 1 trustworthy person in the community is appointed. If someone knows about an elephant presence within a 1-2 Km radius, they will call this person, and this person will activate the flashing LED lights as a warning. Voice based systems performing a similar task are now set up in 8 locations.

Can you take us through how an elephant’s presence is detected and what happens once a warning is issued?

We have trained personnel who manually go out to track the location and routes of elephants on a daily basis. The Tamil Nadu Forest department’s Field Staff give updates about elephant locations. They have a Rapid Response Team who also monitor elephant movement. If they find that a settlement is under threat by an elephant, the Range Officer divides their team who then go to these settlements.They don’t use confrontational noisy trucks and firecrackers to scare the elephants away. Instead, they issue a soft response by turning on the engine of vehicles and talking loudly to each other. Elephants are sensitive enough to understand that there’s a risk and they take a different route.

How much has the EWS and EIN succeeded in its aims?

In Valparai, no one complains about elephants anymore. It has really boosted the confidence of people. It has also brought down the pressure on elephants. It has made the locals less fearful and helps them plan their outdoor activities.

They have gone from asking about elephants’ locations to actively providing information about elephants.The participation has not only been active, but also accurate. 98% of their elephant reports were true warnings. People have even started forwarding messages to friends and neighbours (the database has currently has 3000 families), widening the outreach.

Damage to property has decreased by more than 50% (elephants attack places where large amounts of food is stored).

Tourists have access to the information from the TV crawls, and the plantation owners responsibly discourage them from going anywhere near elephants.

Before the project, the average number of people killed due to elephant encounter between 1994-2002 was 3 per year. After the EIN was set up (2002-2015), the average went down to 1 per year, with some years reporting 0 deaths (2010, 2013, 2015).

What are the future plans for this project? How do you plan to take it forward and sustain its successes?

This year we want to make our systems stronger. We want to train more people about how to escape, how to interpret elephants’ warning noises, and teach them about elephants’ behavioral patterns so that they can read indicators. We also want to sensitize people and enforce the idea in them not to ignore the signals, and to stay away if there is a warning.

There is much to be learnt from initiatives like these which use the bottom-up model of conservation. With technology, teamwork, creativity, and passion, even elephant-sized problems can be solved!

You can also read about other initiatives that are tackling human-elephant conflictTrunk Call for the conservation of elephants, why domestication of elephants is not the best ideareasons not to ride a jumbo, and pick up some books to teach your kids about elephants.


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