M. Ananda Kumar of Nature Conservation Foundation has found ways to deal with human-elephant conflict in Valparai. Akila Kannadasan reports

What happens when an unsuspecting herd of elephants encounters human beings? “It's a shock to both the sides,” says M. Ananda Kumar, a scientist at the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF). Anand recently won the Carl Zeiss Wildlife Conservation Award for spearheading projects to effectively deal with human-elephant conflict in Valparai.

When the startled animals react, it's the humans who bear the brunt. But that is not the elephants' fault. “The problem lies with the location,” he says. In Valparai, elephants trample through plantations to cross over from one patch of forest to another. “They have no other choice. They have lost their land. But elephants show fidelity to their range. Thousands of people also depend on the same land,” he says. Co-existence is the key.

Anand is working on an elephant information network that can let people know when and where there is elephant movement. “We have to find ways to strike a balance between the people and the elephants,” he says.

Anand has set up a team of seven men in Valparai who track elephants during the day. “Every evening, the team sends information on the whereabouts of elephants to a local TV channel. This is displayed in the form of flash news every day after 4 p.m.,” explains Anand.

The team is also involved in sending bulk SMSs to the people of Valparai. “The SMS, sent in Tamil and English to people working in the plantations, will tell you where exactly elephants are at that point of time,” says Anand. NCF has a record of names, addresses and place of work of about 2,500 people. The SMSs are sent to those who are present within a two kilometre radius of elephant movement. “Plantation companies and the ground staff of the Forest Department have been very supportive. We have people calling us regularly to inform us of elephant activity that they know of,” he says.

Anand and his team have also come up with a gadget that flashes red LED lights to warn of elephants. “We have installed mobile operated elephant alert indicators in 22 places in Valparai,” he explains. The device has a SIM card in it. To trigger the lights, all one has to do is give a missed-call to the number. The inspiration for this system came from the security guard of a tea estate, says Anand. “One night, he flashed his torch to warn people uphill of elephants on their return path. It worked.”

In case of elephant movement, volunteers, whose mobile numbers are registered with NCF, dial the number of the indicator in the area. The call triggers the alert lights. People can see the lights from afar during the night and can thus steer clear of the path.

Anand says NCF plans to involve colleges and women self-help groups in their awareness activities. “We want to involve people in conservation. It will give them a sense of responsibility. Also, in the long run, we hope the activities become sustainable. People should be able to carry on without us,” he adds.

Anand says that the residents of Valparai have responded positively to their projects. “When they know that elephants are far from them, it gives them a sense of security. You cannot imagine how relieved they will be on their way back home from work. They can plan outdoor activities accordingly and, most importantly, they can sleep peacefully.”