In rural India, someone walking home after a day at work may spot a flashing red light in the distance. At the same moment, an SMS text message might appear on their mobile phone. The meaning of these alerts is simple: elephants are nearby, be careful.
As both human habitats and tea and coffee plantations in southern India have spread outwards into the surrounding rainforest, people – especially plantation workers – are more frequently coming into accidental contact with wild elephants. This conflict has serious repercussions, with more than 400 people and 100 elephants killed each year as a result.
Enter Ananda Kumar, a scientist at India’s Nature Conservation Foundation, and his ‘Elephant Information Network’. Launched on the Valparai plateau in the Anaimalai rainforest, where 75,000 people share the land with between 80 and 100 elephants, the network tracks the animals and enables real-time sharing of their locations to anyone in the near vicinity who could be directly affected. All of which is a far cry from the early days, when alerts appeared only as pop-ups on local television channels. Users now engage with more modern technologies, such as mobile phones, mobile-operated beacons, and Google Maps.
‘The message goes like this: “There are elephants in such-and-such tea estate”,’ says Kumar. ‘There’s no need to panic, but people do need to be aware. What we want to get across to people is that there are no problem elephants, just problem locations.’
By raising awareness and minimising unintentional encounters, the system enables a more peaceful coexistence between humans and elephants in the region. From an average of three human deaths annually prior to the programme’s introduction in 2002, this has dropped to an average of only one per year. Kumar is now expanding his network across India, adapting the system to work in other regions where human habitats are increasingly overlapping with elephant ranges.