Human Wildlife Conflict Tech Challenge: Asian Elephant Case

In India alone, an average of 400 people and 100 elephants are killed every year as a result of human-wildlife conflict. You can help prevent this. 

WWF and WILDLABS challenge you to develop a new, or improved, technology tool to reduce such interactions between humans and elephants. The winning solution will receive a prize of up to 30,000 EUR. With this prize, you will refine your solution and field test it with the support of WWF's landscape teams.

Published Date: 2017/06/26

The Challenge

Design a smart and integrated system incorporating existing tools to enhance the effectiveness of electric fences. The system should:

  • Detect when and where in electric fences power leaks away due to drought or obstructing vegetation that hamper full conductivity; 
  • Detect when and where an electric fence is broken by an elephant and identify the behavior of that particular animal. This will foster learning and further improvement of fence design;
  • Detect elephants approaching crop fields or villages in an early stage to allow people to respond appropriately and in a timely manner.

Why? 

In Northeast-India, human elephant conflicts are increasingly common. Electric fences were developed to prevent elephants from entering villages and crop fields. Effectiveness of electric fences directly depends on the time and effort invested in maintenance and monitoring, which should be done around the clock. For a farmer who has laboured all day on the farm, sitting up at night defending crops makes life hard. People do fall asleep during guarding and wake up only after elephants have entered their field. Chasing them at this stage can be very dangerous and result in human casualties.

During the day, the ground must be tended and the flow of electricity monitored to ensure the fences remain active. The energizers used to activate solar powered electric fences provide information on the power supply to the fence, but do not provide any information on the conductivity of the wires and where gaps in connectivity may occur. Power leakages due to drought or obstructing vegetation can only be detected manually or with voltage meters, which is highly laborious. 

An electric fence protects a corn crop. 

© LCC Project / FFI

Elephants are intelligent animals and will eventually always find ways to break fences and enter crop fields. For example, tuskers learn how to break wires and poles with their tusks and elephants have been observed throwing logs and other tools on the wires.  Currently, to identify damaged fences and to understand how this happened, camera traps with motion sensors can be deployed. They send warning messages or trigger an alarm. However, camera traps are costly and their passive lasers can’t differentiate between elephants and other wildlife (or people) and are thus constantly triggered by any movement.

The elephant knows exactly where to put its foot to not get stuck.

This is an illustration of how clever elephants are and how determined they are to get to a place they want to be. The use of camera traps is crucial here for the villagers to study its behavior and make the required adjustments to the fence.

Credits: ©WWF India / Tamil Nadu Forest Department

Early detection of elephants will prevent surprise encounters and will give people more time to choose the best response to prevent escalation into conflict. Existing early detection tools can only detect elephants at short distances.

Local farmers would benefit from one single system integrating the energizer and tools to monitor fence health and elephant presence. The information generated by the system should pinpoint and inform people about the location along the fence that requires repair and improvement, and when and where to respond proactively to elephants. This system of tools should be affordable on a local level, easily accessible and operated and require little maintenance.

What You Need to Know

Who

Asian elephant and the local villagers of Sonitpur District in Assam province

Where

North Bank Landscape, Assam, India. (See map below)

HEC hotspot is Sonitpur District measuring 5324 km2. of which 1344km2 areas are under some way of protective management and about 400 km2 of tea plantations.

What is causing the Human-Elephant Conflict problem
  • Steady degradation of habitat due to encroachment and an increasing human population
  • Habitat loss due to land-use change resulting from encroachment, agriculture and infrastructure development
  • Disruption of wildlife corridors
  • Habitat degradation due to over-extraction and weed infestation (causing elephants to look for better fodder in cultivated fields) and monoculture plantations
What conflicts occur
  • Crop raids
  • Damage to property
  • Human fatalities and injuries
  • Elephant fatalities (accidental electrocution or poisoning)
  • Retaliatory killings of elephants
Exacerbating circumstances

Elephants mostly move in herds and can cause damage to large areas in a short time. However, lone males can also be problematic, given that they are more likely to take risks.

HEC cases occur in both urban and rural areas in the district. While elephants raid crop fields in search of food and damage agricultural fields or homes, conflict cases are also reported from the urban areas. In urban areas, elephants search for food and water and roam over large areas and through towns to move from one forest area to another.

When crops are lost to an elephant raid or a family member gets injured or killed, this has a devastating effect on them. In particular, when the casualty is the breadwinner, it has great financial consequences.

Human loss

In Sonitpur district: 2003-2016: 223 (with a peak of 26 in 2003)

Animal loss

In Sonitpur district: 2003-2016: 127 (with a peak of 19 in 2003)

hec-deaths

Specifics of the conflict
  • Most of the incidents occur at night
  • In and around tea plantations and paddy fields and along the forest fringes where elephants usually take shelter. 
  • Around 150-200 elephants may be involved in crop raiding/ damaging houses or other property.
  • September to February are the high conflict months for HEC, coinciding with the cropping cycle when elephants are often attracted to the fresh paddy.
What are the present solutions to Human-Elephant Conflict? 
  • A variety of low cost electric fences (solar power) with locally-developed energizers to deter elephants from entering agricultural fields
  • Elephant Proof Trenches (EPTs)
  • Anti-depredation squads (ADS) of trained community volunteers who support the forest department in managing HEC in a systematic and coordinated way. They mainly support forest patrolling teams to drive away elephant herds that stray close to agricultural fields and human settlements by adopting non-lethal methods.
  • Deployment of kunkis (trained captive elephants) to drive wild elephants back into the forest
  • Chili-based deterrents (tobacco or cow dung mixed with chili pepper paste that is burned or smeared on rags and put up on lines)
  • Watch towers in the villages
  • Search lights
  • Regular patrolling and elephant drives
  • WWF India is currently piloting a scalable bio fence model using a thorny bamboo variety
  • Financial support from the Forest Department for loss/injury of human beings, crop and property by wild elephant.
 

Preparing a "Chilli fence" - rags are smeared with a mixture of hot chilli and engine grease and hung on rope barriers around the crop fields as an effective elephant deterrent. Elephants apparently do not like the smell of chilli and therefore usually stay away from the thus protected fields.

© WWF / Folke Wulf

Socio- demographic details
  • Most of the villages affected by HEC in the landscape are located in close proximity of the Protected Areas (100 m to 30 km). There are some 200 villages and 40,000 households affected by HEC in the district. The crop fields are generally dotted around the community settlements.
  • About 200,000 people live in the main HEC hotspots.
  • Most of the involved communities are indigenous people who depend largely on agriculture and daily wage labour for their livelihood.
Environmental details
  • The landscape is located on the northern bank of the Brahmaputra river. Important wildlife habitats such as Orang National Park and the river islands of Kaziranga lie along the flood plains of Brahmaputra. The river experiences severe floods during the monsoon and inundates a considerable area
  • The landscape is predominantly flat but well drained with low hills along the northern limits
  • The tree coverage of the district is approximately 36%. The two Protected Areas have good vegetation cover. Rest of the forest area are in various states of degradation with very little canopy cover and heavily infested with invasive species (Ageratum conyzoides, Lantana camara, Mimosa invisa etc.)
  • The heavy rain sometimes displaces animals such as elephants from their original habitat and, as a result, conflict raises in the fringe area of the PAs
  • Drought can also trigger conflicts. Due to lack of paddy in the fields surrounding the villages, the elephants enter the villages in search of food causing human casualty and damage to property
  • In Sonitpur, about 400 km2 is covered by tea plantation, which has been the main hub of HEC in the district. However, these are important areas from an elephant conservation point of view, as they are used by elephants as secondary habitat.

Manager of TESSO NILO Palm oil plantation shows damage done by elephants to palms. Riau, Sumatra, Indonesia.

© Alain Compost / WWF

Other
  • There is cell phone and internet access in most villages, but connectivity is erratic
  • Not every community is well organized, so tools developed should be easy to operate and maintain even by individual people
  • The tool should have the ability to be easily and economically replicated using local raw material relevant to the country of use.
Interventions that are currently being used, but require improvement or new solutions

Monitoring of electricity flow

Conductivity can be influenced by drought (reduced grounding), or obstructing vegetation causing power leakage. To measure electric current and detect where conductivity is reduced, people use voltage meters or check the wires visually. This takes up much time.

Detection of broken fences and elephant behaviour that led to this

Electric fences are currently monitored with help of camera traps. These are set up along the location where elephants usually try to break the fence. The images captured by the cameras provide information on how and where elephants break the fence. This information is required for further improvement of fence design to prevent future fence breaching. Instalment of many camera traps along an electric fence is expensive and manual monitoring of the fence (people patrolling the fence) is extremely labour intensive.

Early detection of elephants
One of the easiest methods that people have been using is a trip wire, which triggers an alarm when placed in the path of the elephant. The most commonly used types of alarms include crackers and cans filled with stones.  When the trip wire is moved by an elephant, the sound made by the above-mentioned devices would alert a watchman sitting in a tower. Once an elephant triggers the system and breaks the trip wire, it needs immediate repair. This can be very difficult and even dangerous during dark nights or with elephant around.

Another tool that was designed to detect elephants is a passive infrared motion sensor (PIR). Materials for this device are available in the local electronic market and can be put together by village youths with some knowledge of electronics. The motion sensor detects arrival of the elephant (within 10 to 15 m). Once the PIR sensor is activated, it rings a bell placed at the watchman's hut. This device consumes very little battery power and lasts a long time in the field if properly made. But the radius of this device is very limited, currently responds to any animal / vehicle that passes by, and is not well designed to work under moist conditions.

Villagers have made amendments to the fence at the same spot, after having studied the elephants behaviour via the camera trap footage. This is a continued effort until the elephant gives up breaking the fence, or until another elephant turns up at the fence having experience of breaking fences.

Credits: ©WWF India / Tamil Nadu Forest Department

Examples of successful mechanisms used elsewhere

ANIDER (Animal Intrusion Detection and Repellent System), is an example of an early warning system that is helping protect farms in India’s Terai Arc Landscape. It detects the presence of animals within 10-12 m radius of each of the two sensors. It then generates a spotlight at the intrusion spot and alarm through a hooter, which effectively wards off wildlife. Camera traps set up in these locations also confirm that animals keep away due to the unpleasant sound. The reported annual number of incidents was as high as 30-40 (around 15-20 per crop season), which has now dropped down to 5 or 6. The cost of the investment is high at about 110 USD for a system with two sensors. However, farmers’ harvests have improved from 250 kg in April 2016 to 400 kg in April 2017. 

The radius of this tool is very limited (only 10-12m) and for the North Bank Landscape, we’re looking for a tool that can detect elephants at a greater distance.

Ready to develop your idea?

Over in the community , we' ve set up a HWC Tech Challenge group as a space for challenge participants to connect directly with the field conservationists who work at the frontlines of human-wildlife conflict. Use the specific Asian elephant, tiger and polar bear case threads to ask questions that come up during your design process, call for collaborators, or to find out more about human wildlife conflict.