Jumbo plans

Manon Verchot | Updated on February 08, 2019 Published on February 08, 2019

My way: The plan to place sensors takes into account the fact that elephants will cross railway tracks that run through their corridor. K K Mustafah   -  The Hindu

Universities and tech companies are developing sensors and apps to save elephants

Placing a device that made buzzing bee sounds by a railway track seemed like a good idea. Elephants are scared of bees, so conservationists hoped it would prevent them from being hit by trains. But elephants are also smart. It didn’t take the jumbos long to get used to the sound, and start crossing train tracks again.

Protecting these giant mammals is no easy task, and it doesn’t help that their natural habitats are shrinking by the day. There are 27,312 elephants in India, according to the ministry of environment, forests and climate change. Those in the wild are vulnerable to poaching, electrocution, accidents on the highway and railway tracks, and conflict with humans. No one solution can be enough in such a scenario. Technology, however, is ready to take on the challenge. Universities, tech companies as well as conservation organisations are working to turn things around.

“Technology can be useful in just about any step of the conservation enterprise: In detecting wildlife, counting wildlife and protecting wildlife,” says Nitin Sekar, co-ordinator, elephant conservation programme, World Wildlife Fund-India.

In 2018, 67 elephants were killed in Odisha alone, according to the Wildlife Society of Odisha. Nine were killed by electrocution, six were hit by trains, and four killed by poachers. Between 1987 and 2017, 288 elephants were killed along train tracks, the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) reports.

Most efforts to protect endangered wildlife require considerable human intervention, including patrolling of railway lines, regular census and security around reserves. “People can only be at so many places at once,” says Subrat Kar, professor at IIT-Delhi. Kar, along with the Indian Railways, is working to place sensors along the tracks to detect elephants in the vicinity. The sensor would alert a nearby station, from where the message would be communicated to the train driver. Trials will start during the monsoon, so that tests are done under the most difficult conditions. Letting train drivers know elephants are around is a more practical solution than slowing down trains at all times, says Kar. “If [trains] go slow, they lose money,” he adds.

When elephants are faced with an approaching train, the matriarch of the group gets hit first as she tries to protect her herd, points out Kar. Elephants walk hundreds of kilometres in search of food and water in what is commonly referred to as an “elephant corridor”. Their path isn’t random, but passed down for generations by the matriarch. “If the matriarch dies, the herd is sort of headless,” says Kar. “It goes rogue.”

Kar’s solution focuses on recognising the fact that elephants will cross train tracks that run through their corridor. Solutions like the bee sound, or finding ways to chase elephants away, don’t work because the animal will eventually circle back and try to cross the path, he adds. “The path [the elephant] is crossing is its path. We are the intruders,” he points out. “Solutions which are meant to protect elephants should respect elephants.”

However, when elephants cross villages and farms, they can cause havoc. Around 100 people are killed by elephants in India every year, according to the WWF.

Leopard Tech Labs, a Kerala-based company, is working on a monitoring system — WildWatch — in collaboration with WTI, where users can log data onto an app when they spot elephants and other wild animals. The alert will be sent to the forest control room and, if the notification appears genuine, users of the app within a two-kilometre radius will be alerted, and officials despatched to defuse any potential altercations.

The app is being tested in Sabarimala, inside the Periyar Tiger Reserve. Around 50 officials took part in the initiative and documented wildlife sightings. In a little over a year, they had recorded 54 elephant-related conflicts in the area. “Conflict, basically, is an elephant or any wild animal coming into human habitat,” says Abhishek Krishnan, head of conservation at Leopard Tech Labs. “It need not mean that animals harm property or life in every conflict.”

Elephants and humans have come into close contact in Sabarimala. Many of the reports of elephant “conflict” were near roads taken by pilgrims on their way to the temple. Last year, four pilgrims came across an elephant, but nothing happened, says Krishnan. “The truth is, we have encroached their lands,” he adds. “And now we call their habitat ours.”

The company and the WTI are also working on a project called FenceWatch, which will detect if elephants are near electric fences by measuring voltage levels. When the voltage goes down, it could indicate elephants have broken the fence.

Krishnan says his stint with WTI taught him how challenging it is to keep an eye on endangered animals when there aren’t enough people to do the job. He points out that technology such as FenceWatch would help — by reducing the need for on-the-ground work. Sensors to track poaching could also reduce the burden on rangers in national parks. In the last 10 years, more than 400 elephants have been poached in India, according to information released by the environment ministry through an RTI.

The battle to save elephants from extinction is far from over, but with technology it could get just a little bit easier.

“Even one elephant saved is worth it,” says Kar. “No solution is small.”

Manon Verchot is a Delhi-based freelance journalist

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Published on February 08, 2019
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