One person was killed and five others were injured by a mob of elephants in Khairani village of Baksa district of Assam on September 17. When the villagers tried to scare the animals away, the elephants attacked them.
A few days ago, a wild elephant killed a goods train near Hawaipur in Assam’s Hojai district on September 8. The elephant was crossing the railway track when the accident took place. Although trains passing through elephant crossings are required to slow down, the rule is often broken, according to local residents.
These incidents, though shocking, are not new to Assam. In the past 10 years, conflicts between elephants and humans have claimed the lives of 800 people and around 250 pachyderms, according to government data. Now a new project that uses the sounds of elephants has the potential to significantly reduce violence.
Last year, 70 elephants died in the state. While 24 of these deaths were due to natural causes, three due to electricity, three due to poisoning, four due to train accidents, one due to injury, 18 due to lightning and 17 due to “unknown” causes, the figures official shows. During the same period, 61 people were killed by elephants.
The conflict comes in winter, when the pachyderms leave the forests and go out in search of food. Angry villagers who want to save their homes, crops and lives try to electrocute or poison the pachyderms. Assam (5,719) has the second highest population of wild elephants after Karnataka (6,049), according to the 2017 census.
Measures such as anti-bullying groups, solar-powered fences to prevent elephants from moving into human settlements, and monitoring of their movements have been taken to reduce conflicts over the years. past, according to the forest department.
Sounds like a rescue
While these measures taken by the forest department have gone a long way, they have not been able to significantly reduce the damage caused by the human-elephant conflict in the region. But a new study by a group of independent researchers may help to tackle the problem in the coming days.
The project, called the Elephant Acoustics Project, aims to reduce conflict by using sounds made by pachyderms to alert villagers to the presence of animals in the area, and using noises that scare elephants away from the environment and crops.
“We have developed a device that will work in three stages. First, it will be able to detect the sounds of wild elephants in the area and record them. Once this is done, the nearby villagers and forest officials will be alerted by the device through the mobile network about the presence of pachyderms in the area so that they can take safety measures,” Seema Lokhandwala, a wildlife expert and head of research- project acoustics research.
“Knowing the presence of an elephant is not enough. When the device detects the presence of an elephant by the sounds made by the pachyderms, it will emit a recorded sound of bees, leopards and tigers, insects and animals that the elephants are afraid of, to avoid them. villages and crops.” She added.
In 2018, a similar project by the Indian Railways tried to keep elephants off the railway tracks. A device that amplifies the sound of bees, downloaded from the internet, is kept near the tracks.
The pachyderms, who were able to hear the sound made by the device at a distance of 600 meters, initially stayed away from the tracks. But the elephants were soon able to realize that the sounds did not pose a real threat to the bite.
“Bee sounds work well, but elephants are smart animals. After a few weeks, they get used to the same sound and are able to understand that it is not dangerous. But our device will play the sounds of bees, tigers and tigers in a way round so that the elephants get confused and don’t get used to the pattern,” said Lokhandwala.
The researchers made a conflict map of about 50 villages near the Kaziranga National Park and Tiger Reserve and placed three devices attached to trees in areas that were not in elephant corridors. The results of tests conducted in recent months have been encouraging, and the team hopes to officially deploy the device in December.
“This device has been able to record low-pitched sounds of elephants, which are inaudible to human ears, sometimes up to 2km away. “We have experimented with captive elephants using phones they have made, and we have also used sounds to scare them,” said Lokhandwala.
“Lokhandwala has been working for some time on this project which could be a solution to elephant-human conflicts. Research on a particular topic is only one aspect of the issue. But we need to understand that all things are related researches are not applicable in the field,” said Ramesh Gogoi, Divisional Forest Officer, Kaziranga.
From software to elephants
While she has a team of engineers, conservationists and scientists helping with the project, it is Lokhandwala, a software engineer from Surat in Gujarat, who has changed tracks and combined her background and passion to try it out. and helps reduce elephant conflict. .
“Since childhood, I have been fascinated by elephants and wanted to study the sounds they make. Soon I came to study human-elephant conflicts and wanted to know how I could use engineering training to help them. address the issue,” she said.
Lokhandwala studied similar work abroad, particularly the use of acoustics to help detect the presence of whales and the use of sounds to avoid collisions with ships, and found that something similar could also be used. to reduce human-elephant conflict in Assam.
“I started working on the project since 2015, and I have achieved significant results. We were supposed to start operations in 2020, but our site work and other planned activities have been delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Hopefully, we will be able to start soon,” she said.
Lokhandwala, a PhD candidate at the Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati (IIT-G), is assisted by a core team of five members and several interns. In order to improve their equipment, the group is looking for good engineers who are interested in conservation work.
“As someone who has worked with elephants for a long time, I can say that the Elephant Acoustics Project is a very realistic thing. Even if we are laymen, we can see how we react to the sounds made by the animals and how the animals react to the sounds of the animals. another,” said Kaushik Barua, a conservationist and founder of the Assam Elephant Foundation.
“When this is studied scientifically, as Lokhandwala and her team have done, there is a very strong possibility of success in reducing human-elephant conflict in Assam,” Barua said. “If we know the different types of sounds that elephants make, as well as noise about them, we will be able to significantly prevent conflict.”
Both Lokhandwala and Barua are hopeful that once the project is successful in Assam, it may be replicated in other areas across India where there is human-elephant conflict.