October 12, 2008

Elephants Send Text Messages To Rangers

Elephants in Kenya seem to be jumping on the technological bandwagon by texting rangers about their whereabouts.

Kimani the elephant, text messaged Richard Lesowapir, and told him he was heading for neighboring farms. In the past, the huge bull elephant had a long history of raiding villagers' crops during the harvest, sometimes wiping out six months of income at a time.

However, a mobile phone card inserted in his collar sent rangers a text message. Lesowapir, an armed guard and a driver arrived in a jeep with bright spotlights to frighten Kimani back into the Ol Pejeta conservancy.

Kenya is the first country to implement elephant texting as a way to protect a growing human population and the wild animals that now have less and less room to roam free.

The Red List, an index of vulnerable species published by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, ranks elephants as "near threatened."

Two years ago, the race to save Kimani began. The Kenya Wildlife Service had already reluctantly shot five elephants from the conservancy because they would not stop crop raiding. They identified Kimani as the last of the regular raiders.

The Save the Elephants group wanted to try and stop his bad habits to hopefully save his life.

The group put a mobile phone SIM card in Kimani's collar. They then set up a virtual "geofence" using a global positioning system that mirrored the conservatory's boundaries.

Whenever Kimani approaches the virtual fence, his collar lets rangers know with the help of texts.

The program has been successful; since it began they have intercepted Kimani 15 times. He was once known to be an almost nightly raider, but it's been four months since he last went near a farmer's field.

It's an enormous relief to the small farmers who rely on their crops for food and cash for school fees.

Basila Mwasu, a 31-year-old mother of two, lives adjacent to the conservancy fence. She and her neighbors used to drum through the night on pots and pans in front of flaming bonfires to try to scare away the elephants.

Mwasu says an elephant once stuck its trunk through a window into a room where her baby daughter was sleeping and the family had stored some corn. She beat it back with a burning stick. Another time, an elephant killed a neighbor who was protecting his crop, and his way to earn a living.

"We had to go into town to tell the game (wardens) to chase the elephants away or we're going to kill them all," Mwasu said.

Batian Craig, the conservation and security manager at the 90,000 acre Ol Pejeta conservancy, says community development programs don't matter if farmers don't have crops and a way to provide for their families. He recalled the time when 15 families had their harvests wiped out.

"As soon as a farmer has lost his livelihood for six months, he doesn't give a damn whether he has a school or a road or water or whatever," he said.

Iain Douglas-Hamilton, founder of Save the Elephants, said the project is still in its early stages.

Only two geofences have been set up so far in Kenya, and it has met its share of problems.

Every few years, collar batteries wear out; communities think placing a collar on an elephant implies ownership and responsibility for the havoc it causes.

It's expensive work; Ol Pejeta has five full-time staff and a standby vehicle to respond when a message flashes across a ranger's screen.

The elephants can be tracked through Google Earth software; helping to map and conserve the corridors they use to move from one protected area to another. Poaching can also be prevented, as rangers know where to send resources to guard valuable animals.

Douglas-Hamilton says elephants, like teenagers, learn from each other. Therefore, tracking and controlling one habitual crop raider can make a whole group change its habits.

Mwasu's two young daughters play under the banana trees without their mother worrying about elephants.

"We can live together," she said. "Elephants have the right to live, and we have the right to live too."


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