At 3.50 pm on Wednesday, Ganesh Raghunathan begins working the phones from the sparsely-furnished office of Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF) in Valparai in Tamil Nadu. "Where are the elephants in your area today? Near the school?" the bespectacled, 29-year-old wildlife researcher asks in Tamil, jotting down the response swiftly in a notebook. More such calls follow. Soon, his colleague at the research and conservation organisation, Sreedhar Vijayakrishnan, joins him with his own list of the locations where elephants have been spotted that day by informants. Raghunathan then gets to work on his Mac, updating the information, plotting GPS locations on a map and trawling through his database of registered phone numbers, which includes estate workers, students, drivers and a pastor in Valparai. In 10 minutes or so, 400 text messages go out in Tamil and English to select recipients, telling them elephants have been sighted within a 2-kilometre radius of where they live.
These bulk SMSes are part of a unique elephant early-warning system launched in Valparai, a plateau in the Anamalai hills with thousands of hectares of tea plantations, which is also home to the second largest elephant population in India. ("Anamalai" means elephant hill). Apart from the 1,000 messages sent daily, the location of the elephants is relayed as a news crawl on the local cable TV channel. At various locations, 24 warning lights have been installed that are switched on at night using mobile phones if elephants are in the vicinity. These efforts have meant that while roughly 400 people and 100 elephants lose their lives every year in different parts of the country in man-animal conflicts, Valparai might be the only place where the number of deaths has reduced over the years. According to the forest department, while 2.8 lives were lost every year before the early warning system was put in place, the number dropped to 1.3 once it was launched, with no deaths in 2013.
"We should not look at the deaths just as numbers," says M Ananda Kumar, a senior researcher with NCF and one of the people who hit upon the idea of an early warning system. "When someone dies, the whole family is traumatised, and the village begins to view elephants as killers." Kumar and his colleagues have been studying elephants in the Anamalais for over a decade, urged to do so by tea plantation managers in the area who told them the hulking animals had been creating trouble. "We wanted to understand how elephants move through the landscape, how people interact with them and how the damages were happening," says Kumar, a soft-spoken 47-year-old, who began studying elephants in 2002. Critically, the team also decided to investigate the deaths of those who were reported to have been killed by elephants.
"People tend to think elephants come in search of them and kill them, but we found out that most deaths were accidents, when people encountered elephants unexpectedly," says Kumar. Many deaths occurred late in the evening, when people ventured out to relieve themselves because of the lack of sanitation facilities at their homes. In an area where elephants and people must co-exist, the question was whether the deaths could be brought down if people were made aware of where the elephants were.
Encountering an elephant is hardly a rare occurrence in Valparai because of its topography. The British can be held responsible for this, in a manner of speaking. At one of the bends in the road up to Valparai from Coimbatore, and overlooking the valley, is a statue of CA Carver Marsh, an Englishman who led expeditions to the area in the 19th century in search of new land for plantations. Marsh is considered to be the man responsible for converting the area into the tea garden from the thick rainforest that it had been. But not every inch could be turned into a tea estate, and the plantations are interspersed with fragments of forest, home to a variety of species, including elephants that continue to wander through the areas they have been used to for generations.
Many locals thus have an elephant anecdote or two to share. You can even see the evidence yourself, as in the case of a ration shop that had been damaged by the elephants a week ago. The owner, Raja Kannu, says in a tone of resignation that elephants pass his shop 2 to 3 times a month from December to March. "But I make sure I leave the forest area if I get a warning SMS." Interestingly, while some locals suggest that conflict is a recent occurrence, historical records prove otherwise. In his 1940s book Anamalais, CRT Congrieve writes about the time Marsh was in the area: "...the wild elephant is naturally a curious creature, and loves going to see what things are; and Loam's camps...were constantly being pulled down, and the roofing smashed to bits…"
With elephants being regular visitors, particularly in the winter months, the appreciation for the warning system is universal. "We were afraid of stepping out in the evenings earlier. But now I can just take a different route if I get a warning," says Paramashivan, a petrol pump attendant in the small town. His father had been injured by an elephant years ago when he had gone out at night to relieve himself. Madaswamy, who works on the tea estates, says he does not have a mobile phone so is not sure about SMSes, but he receives the information through the local cable channel and from his field officer.
Once Kumar and his colleagues determined the resolution to the problem lay in letting people know about the presence of the elephants, the next step was to figure out how. They began by tracking the elephants' movements and locations and realised over the years that movement patterns broadly remained the same. More important, the daily tracking revealed that over 80 per cent of the time, the animals were likely to be within two-kilometres of where they were sighted the previous day.
"We began by conveying our information to the field officers of plantations but it was tough to reach many this way. Then one of the estate managers suggested we put the information on the local channel, Valparai TV, so we started doing that, as a text crawl with Anand's number," says Raghunathan. That was the earliest form of the elephant information network, which began in 2006.
At the time, the channel reached 25,000 families. But as people began switching to satellite TV and mobile network coverage improved and phones proliferated, there was a shift to bulk SMSes sent directly to the people. The red warning lights, too, are triggered on and off through mobile phones and two locals have been put in charge of each light. The location of the elephants is followed by three trackers who have GPS devices to mark locations, and a network of local informants. "They see where the elephants are, trace the route they have walked from one place to the other and take GPS readings," Raghunathan adds.
The programme has been successful only because of local participation and the involvement of the plantation companies and the forest department, Kumar emphasises. "We began recording the responses and noticed that in the first year a lot of people were calling to find out where the elephants were, curious about who was sending the messages. But in time, people began calling to inform us where the elephants were sighted."
The forest department, on its part, has deployed a special anti-depradation squad and rescue centre in the area, and set up a helpline that people can call in case they see elephants. The squad drives away the elephants by parking their jeep in the vicinity with the headlights. They do not use fire crackers and other traditional methods of scaring the elephants away, says V Ashokan, deputy director of Anamalai Tiger Reserve. "In the Valparai plateau, human deaths due to conflict are almost nil over the past years," he says.
Kumar says the plan is to install more emergency lights, increase the number of people the messages go out to and fit a public address system in buses that would inform people about elephant movement in the evening. By working on reducing the number of deaths due to elephant encounters, he and his colleagues hope to reduce locals' fear and also ease the pressure on authorities to take steps against the elephant population, such as capturing them. "People can then start seeing elephants as part of the ecosystem, like old-timers used to," he concludes.