How text-messaging elephants can save their own lives
By Cathy Boyle
More than 12 billion text messages are sent around the world every day, and soon some of those messages will come from elephants in Kenya. Giving elephants the ability to text message may sound like an advertising stunt, but it’s actually a groundbreaking attempt by the Laikipia Elephant Project to save elephant’s lives.
The Laikipia region, a plateau comprised of 10,000 square kilometers near the center of Kenya, is home to the second largest elephant population in the country – more than 7,000 animals. The terrain is a mixture of forest and informal grazing areas, where elephants are free to roam, and areas of small farms and large ranches where elephants are not tolerated. This patchwork makes Laikipia the site of a large number of human-elephant conflicts.
Various barriers and other methods to deter elephants from roaming into farmlands and ranches have been tried, ranging from ditches to fires, electrified or chili-greased fences, to watchtowers and even fireworks. Yet conflicts continue to happen, and most times result in property or crop damage and even loss of life. The destruction of crops has, at times, meant the loss of a million dollars to this impoverished region. In terms of loss of life, in 2007 it was estimated that five people and 10 elephants were being killed each year as a direct result of these conflicts.
Teaching elephants to avoid the farms on their rangeland is where text messaging comes into play. The Laikipia Elephant Project team, directed by Dr. Max Graham, has chosen 10 bull elephants to fit with special GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) collars that will track the location of the elephants on an hourly basis, and automatically send a text message to wildlife conservationists when the elephant comes into range of a farmer’s fence.
As soon as that text message is received, a rapid response team of conservationists, farmers and volunteers will dispatch to the elephant’s location and scare that elephant away. Dr. Graham, who has worked on environment and development projects in Afghanistan, Ecuador, Gabon and now Kenya, believes strongly that by associating the fence with a perceived risk, the bull elephants will learn to avoid the fences themselves and also teach other elephants to do the same.
“We know in practice on the ground that this learned behavior is exactly what happens,” Dr. Graham said. He’s been tracking a group of elephants for six years in Kenya, and he’s seen them learn to respect a boundary that between a wildlife conservancy on side and land owned by the Pokot pastoralist group on the other.
As part of their culture, Pokot men kill elephants to win the favor of the most beautiful Pokot woman. Despite the fact that there’s no fence between these two parts of the landscape, the elephants don’t cross the boundaries of the conservancy. They’ve learned that if they enter the territory of the Pokot people, they will be shot.
“The management of elephants in human-dominated landscapes is all about risk,” Dr. Graham explained. “We don’t want to create real risk of course, but we do want to create perceptions of risk to elephants. That way we can manage where we don’t want them to go. At the same time we make sure that they have enough space to be free and evolve into whatever they’re going to be in many years time.”
Ishmael, a 45-year-old bull elephant that Dr. Graham identified as a boundary breaker, was recently fitted with a GSM collar (watch the video) that he’ll wear for the next three years. If all goes as planned, Dr. Graham will get enough early warning text messages from Ishmael in the coming months to teach him to steer clear of these man-made boundaries and the life-ending consequences that lie beyond them.
Cathy Boyle is a writer, creative director, blogger and environmental/wildlife enthusiast with a penchant for gadgets and technology. You can read her complete interview of Dr. Max Graham on her blog, Mobile Thinkers.