In Ol Pejeta, Kenya, conservationists faced a unique problem. The conservancy is striving to protect native african wildlife, like the African elephant (Loxodonta africana) from poaching and territory loss. Listed as 'vulnerable' by IUCN Red List, only approximately 10,000 elephants are in Africa today, compared to previous numbers of over 300,000. Protection has helped the elephant's numbers a bit, but a new issue surfaced: elephant territories got too close to neighboring farms, and the elephants became a menace.
Bull elephants started raiding villager's crops, wiping out up to six months worth of income at a time and even killing people who tried to defend their fields. For poor farmers who rely on their land for sustenance, the rogue elephants were monsters, and had to be stopped. The problem became not only how to protect the elephants from the people, but also the people from the elephants. The Kenya Wildlife service was forced to shoot five elephants from the conservancy who refused to stop crop-raiding. A sixth, a bull named Kimani, was dangerously close to sharing their fate.
That is, until the Save the Elephants group stepped in to try and break Kimani's habit. He was the last of the raiders, and if they could somehow keep him from destroying cropland, they could save his life. The group came up with a unique plan: they placed a SIM card in Kimani's radio collar and connected it to a invisible fence created by GPS. Whenever the collar got too close to the fence, it sent a text to rangers, who immediately headed off the elephant and drove him back into the conservancy.
So far, the rangers have intercepted Kimani 15 times using a jeep covered with spotlights to scare him away from the farmers' livelihoods. But it has been four months since Kimani went near a field, compared to the almost-nightly raiding he used to commit. On top of that, since elephants learn from eachother, it's likely that Kimani's behavior change will help keep other elephants from becoming criminals.
More 'geofences' are being set up in Kenya for other elephants, but the project does have issues to be resolved. Collar batteries need to be replaced every few years, and it is expensive to pay a full-time staff to await texting elephants. But hopes are high that text messaging could help resolve the 1,300 yearly crop-raiding complaints. The GPS collars provide other benefits, too. Because they can be tracked in Google Earth, the collars allow conservationists to map and protect the corridors used by the elephants to move between protected areas and identify hot spots to defend most fiercely against poachers.
The experiment with Kimani is definitely a success, and it is helping the animals and people live together in harmony. Innovative approaches like this one to rising conflicts in conservation may just allow us to keep the beautiful diversity of life that we currently enjoy.
*hat tip to Coglanglab at ScienceBlog.com
*Check out the Ol Pejeta Conservancy and Save the Elephants online.