Elephants in Kenya sending text messages to rangers

Sunday, October 12, 2008

OL PEJETA, Kenya -- The text message from the elephant flashed across Richard Lesowapir's screen: Kimani was heading for neighboring farms.

The huge bull elephant had a long history of raiding villagers' crops during the harvest, sometimes wiping out six months of income at a time. But this time a mobile phone card inserted in his collar sent rangers a text message. Lesowapir, an armed guard and a driver arrived in a jeep bristling with spotlights to frighten Kimani back into the Ol Pejeta conservancy.

Kenya is the first country to try elephant texting as a way to protect both a growing human population and the wild animals that now have less room to roam. Elephants are ranked as "near threatened" in the Red List, an index of vulnerable species published by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

The race to save Kimani began two years ago. The Kenya Wildlife Service had already reluctantly shot five elephants from the conservancy who refused to stop crop-raiding, and Kimani was the last of the regular raiders. The Save the Elephants group wanted to see if he could break the habit.

So they placed a mobile phone SIM card in Kimani's collar, then set up a virtual "geofence" using a global positioning system that mirrored the conservatory's boundaries. Whenever Kimani approaches the virtual fence, his collar texts rangers.

They have intercepted Kimani 15 times since the project began. Once almost a nightly raider, he last went near a farmer's field four months ago.

Collar batteries wear out every few years. Sometimes communities think placing a collar on an elephant implies ownership and responsibility for the havoc it causes. And it's expensive work -- Ol Pejeta has five full-time staff and a standby vehicle to respond when a message flashes across a ranger's screen.

But the experiment with Kimani has been a success, and last month another geofence was set up in another part of the country for an elephant known as Mountain Bull. Moses Litoroh, the coordinator of Kenya Wildlife Service's elephant program, hopes the project might help resolve some of the 1,300 complaints the Service receives every year over crop raiding.

The elephants can be tracked through Google Earth software, helping to map and conserve the corridors they use to move from one protected area to another. The tracking also helps prevent poaching, as rangers know where to deploy resources to guard valuable animals.

But the biggest bonus so far has been the drop in crop raiding. Douglas-Hamilton says elephants, like teenagers, learn from each other, so tracking and controlling one habitual crop raider can make a whole group change its habits.

Mwasu's two young daughters play under the banana trees these sultry evenings without their mother worrying about elephants.

"We can live together," she said. "Elephants have the right to live, and we have the right to live too."

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