Testing an Early Warning System to Mitigate Human-Wildlife Conflict on the Bhutan-India Border

Aditya Gangadharan's latest case study looks at how sensor technology can provide solutions for human-wildlife conflict instances along the Indo-Bhutan border. This project, which aimed to get the local community involved in deploying and maintaining the monitoring devices, was part of IUCN's EU-funded CITES-MIKE programme.

This article first appeared on LinkedIn, republished here with permission.

Date published: 2020/03/11

This is part 2 of a series. Part 1 was previously posted on WILDLABS here.

Testing an early warning system to mitigate human-wildlife conflict on the Bhutan-India border

I wrote earlier about how conservation technology will be reduced to a pile of junk if its not really needed or owned by the local community and administration. Clearly, pairing the right technology to the right problem and right social circumstance is key to making conservation technology effective. I will talk a bit more about this here and in my next article, using as an example the Dooars region of North Bengal and adjoining plains of Bhutan in Samtse. This was done while I was at IUCN, as part of the EU-funded CITES-MIKE programme.

In case you are ever lost walking around the Dooars area, just look for the line where the tea gardens abruptly stop and the rice fields abruptly begin (or where the chaos & industry end and the calm & agrarian areas begin!) - that is the Indo-Bhutan border.

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The contrast between these two landscapes is also reflected in the prevalence of, and conflict with, large mammals. The Dooars are a major hotspot of elephant and leopard conflict, with close to 100 annual human deaths & injuries on average, and thousands of property losses just from elephants. Whereas in Samtse, both the number of animals and the conflict levels are a fraction of the Dooars.

Here I will talk about Samtse, where elephant presence is seasonal, mainly restricted to around 15-20 animals coming in from North Bengal for about 4 months. They concentrate in one main forest area. So the people living around that forest are disproportionately affected for that period, and wanted a solution that would give them an early warning when elephants were entering their fields or settlement areas. But they also wanted something that would work against wild pigs and monkeys, their other permanent crop damagers.

After some exploring, we decided to try out ANIDERS, a solar-powered device developed by Kyari Inc. This device basically consists of a set of passive infrared (PIR) sensors that activates a series of loud sounds and flashing lights when they are triggered by a nearby animal. It works with any species that is large enough to trigger the PIR sensor, from a pig to an elephant - but at a short range of about 15 metres. Note that the primary goal of the sound and light is to alert people at night that animals are coming in (early warning), not for chasing away the animal (deterrence).

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We brought the devices to Samtse, and started off by getting the forest staff and the more active members of the local community to take apart the devices, waterproof them and put them back together. This helped them understand in detail how the modules connected - so in the future, they could diagnose any problem, and simply order in a replacement part from the company.

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We then discussed and agreed on three rules: devices should be placed at strategic locations that maximize the number of people who benefit, but must not cause harm to anyone (democratization); they should not be placed in forests, or in a manner that impedes elephant movement between forest patches (crop protection, not wildlife harassment); and, the people benefiting from the device should take care of it (ownership & maintenance). We also prepared a detailed set of safeguards to protect both humans and animals as part of handover.

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We then took the backseat, and let the process of installation and planning unfold organically on its own - this helps create a sense of agency and ownership that is critical for long term viability. There were animated discussions among the forest department, block administration and the local communities; people jockeyed to place the devices closer to their homes or fields; there were discussions on the deterrent versus warning effects; and on what to do when animals find alternative routes to crop raid.

Finally, the initial set of locations was prepared, plus a new set of locations to rotate the devices through every few weeks (here is an advantage of the system we used - it is compact and light enough to move around). To motivate the caretakers of each device, we presented them with a field kit of boots, torches, raincoats and backpacks. We paired each device with a camera trap, so that we could independently evaluate their effectiveness. We also developed a standard data sheet for the users to monitor devices.

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After the first season of use, the people reported a qualitative change in their level of tension, because they can stay asleep except for the occasions when wildlife is entering their fields. Because of the low animal density in this area, and the relatively limited entry points, the short detection range of the device was not too much of an issue.

Of course elephants are elephants, and they regularly knock down the devices (photo courtesy KB Giri)! Luckily they can be replanted.

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Most importantly, the strong collaboration between the community and the forest department, and their enthusiastic commitment to really taking ownership of the devices, made the big difference. They were interested enough to have requested the devices themselves; they took the effort to understood in detail how it worked; and they took over the entire management without us doing anything more than having an occasional call or sending in replacement modules. Lets see how these progress over time!

Acknowledgements: Thank you to Shri Thinley Wangdi, Chief Forestry Officer Samtse, Range officers Shri Tenzin Jamtsho and Shri KB Giri and Gewog head Mr Giri, apart from the citizens of Tashicholing for making this project work! Also Deep Shubhra Biswas and Abhay Sharma for their support in the field.

Aditya Gangadharan is a conservation biologist focusing on large mammals. His background in data science, technology & entrepreneurship allows him to develop innovative conservation projects dealing with urgent conservation issues like mitigating human-wildlife conflict. Most recently, Aditya worked on transforming the IUCN MIKE (Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants) programme in South Asia. Aditya is a WILDLABS community member.

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