Dawn breaks to reveal the elephants’ damage: footprints the size of large woks puddled with rain, a wire fence mangled beyond repair, healthy tomato plants crushed, their ripe fruits oozing juice into the chocolate-colored mud. Imagine this is your farm; how would you respond?
To Krithi Karanth, the answer is simple: Pick up the phone!
A History of Conflict
“Spaces for wildlife are shrinking, and therefore you are putting people in closer contact with wildlife,” explains Karanth, a conservation biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society and a National Geographic Explorer. And, “in some places, it is also an outcome of being successful at conservation, where you now have large, stable wildlife populations.”
From 2000 to 2010, the state of Karnataka, India, received over 100,000 compensation claims stemming from wildlife conflicts. Although these conflicts are not a new phenomenon, there is a sense that they have increased in recent years.
To address the mounting tension between villagers and wildlife, Karanth is spearheading a new project in Karnataka called “WildSeve” (pronounced seh-vay). The project—funded by the National Geographic Big Cats Initiative, Oracle, and The Rufford Foundation—uses cell phone technology and dedicated responsiveness to reconcile the long-simmering differences between conservation efforts and local communities.
Most of the wildlife incidents in Karnataka occur in the western part of the state, where the Western Ghats mountain range parallels the Indian coast. The Western Ghats—which stretch from Mumbai to the southern tip of India—are older than the Himalaya and are considered one of the world’s eight “hottest hotspots” of biological diversity, a geomorphic feature of global importance.
In the mid-20th century, charismatic animals in the region were facing precipitous declines, but conservation efforts stabilized the populations and they have largely recovered.
“In Nagarahole and Bandipur [national parks] you have among the highest densities of tigers and elephants in the world,” says Karanth. “This [tiger] population had gone down in the 1950s and '60s, but it’s come back now and it’s been pretty stable for the last 10, 20 years.”
However, the environment that makes the Western Ghats a biodiversity hotspot also supports a diverse—and important—agricultural economy. With two seemingly antagonistic goals nestled side-by-side, the region has become a hotbed for human-wildlife conflict.
The recipient of a National Geographic research grant (she received the 10,000th National Geographic grant), Karanth and a group of researchers detailed the extent of the conflict in a 2013 study published in Biological Conservation. Focusing on five wildlife reserves in the Western Ghats of Karnataka—including Nagarahole and Bandipur—the researchers surveyed nearly 2,000 households within 10 kilometers (six miles) of a reserve. The results were eye-opening.
According to the study, roughly 65 percent of the households surveyed reported crop losses from wildlife. The major culprits: feral pigs and elephants, an IUCN endangered species. Additionally, 15 percent of households reported livestock losses, primarily from tigers, leopards, foxes, and wild dogs.
Tragically, Karanth also found instances of human injury or death resulting from attacks by the creatures the reserves were meant to protect. (See another project that helps prevent deaths from elephants.)
The Indian government compensates its citizens for losses incurred from protected wildlife. Remuneration is generally handled by the state, and in Karnataka, it is the domain of the Karnataka Forest Department. However, though Karnataka has a compensation policy in place, Karanth discovered that many farmers found the process both time consuming and costly.
The respondents to the 2013 study reported average losses of 23,010 rupees ($340) per incident, but only a portion of those incidents were reported to the authorities. Of households that lost crops, only 57 percent reported the incident to the state. Reporting was more common for livestock loss and human injury or death, but there were fewer official claims than one might expect given the economic burden of the losses.
For cases that were reported, remuneration was dreadfully inadequate: only 30 percent of the households that filed claims were reimbursed. The KFD is responsive to cases of human and livestock injury or death, but only responds to major cases of crop loss. Furthermore, the KFD does not compensate for losses caused by pigs, which are one of the primary perpetrators of crop loss.
Karanth had long been aware of the problems that arise when humans and wildlife live in close proximity to each other—her father Ullas Karanth is a prominent Indian conservationist and she has dedicated her career to conservation—but her results exposed a larger mess than scientists had previously realized.
The study also revealed an opportunity.
Tackling the Problem
Through their research, Karanth and her colleagues highlighted an undeniable reality of wildlife management: For conservation to succeed, local communities—in India and around the world—must support it.
“If conservation is going to work in India, it is going to work where people live,“ says Paul Robbins, a conservation and wildlife conflict expert at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (and a former colleague of Karanth).
But, he continues, “The level of distrust between conservation officers and local villagers is extremely high.”
And why shouldn’t it be? For local farmers, remuneration is often the only recourse, but for common crop loss, their claims are often neglected. A system that effectively compensates farmers for losses would go a long way toward getting locals to buy into conservation.
Enter the WildSeve project. In Kannada, the local state language, seve means “to serve,” or “in service of.”
Karanth and her team developed a system to field reports of wildlife conflicts using cell phones and customer service technology. After a wildlife encounter, villagers are encouraged to call a toll-free phone number, and they are prompted to leave a voice message with details about the incident. The message is routed to a coordinator, who then dispatches a field crew to the site. The process functions similarly to a help desk that one might call to resolve a computer issue.
“It is a high-tech solution in the sense of the portal and the response system,” explains Karanth. “But the idea is a very simple one. People the world over have cell phones now.” (See how you can deter elephants with chili condoms and firecrackers.)
The project was initially launched as a pilot program across 20 villages in 2014. Karanth was skeptical it would work because it is not common practice to leave voice messages in rural India, but the program was successful and she was convinced it could work on a larger scale.
Based on data collected in her 2013 work, Karanth decided to focus the project around Nagarahole and Bandipur National Parks, two reserves with high-density wildlife populations and histories of conflict.
WildSeve officially launched on July 1, 2015. To advertise the program, Karanth and her team undertook a massive publicity drive, distributing over 30,000 pamphlets to 284 villages surrounding the two reserves. Working through the Wildlife Conservation Society, the program currently has 10 employees: eight field staffers, a field coordinator, and Karanth.
The program recently completed its first year, and it has exceeded Karanth's expectations. To date, WildSeve has responded to 3,420 calls.
In each conflict, a field crew visits the site—usually within two to four hours of the call—and documents evidence of the losses. The team then files the claim and tracks its progress, following up with the KFD as needed. As a result of these efforts, nearly one-third of the claims filed by WildSeve have been remunerated, with compensation paid to roughly 1,000 families.
So far, WildSeve has only marginally improved the reimbursement rate, but Karanth expects to see more payments, at higher amounts, in the coming months. However, she also believes that money is not the only measure of success.
“The real contribution is when that call comes in, and you go there and respond, every single time,” she says. “When you talk to people who we’ve helped, they say, ‘you come and you help us see this through.’ [People] now have some faith that somebody cares and will come [to help].”
To Paul Robbins, this is the real value behind WildSeve. “People want to know that their problems are recognized and acknowledged,” he says.
Robbins believes the next revolution in conservation will come when we begin applying principles of truth and reconciliation—a conflict-resolution tactic—to wildlife preservation.
“The project is the first step in acknowledging the human cost of conservation,” he says.
Karanth hopes that WildSeve’s technology platform will spread to other regions with high rates of human-wildlife conflict. The technology was developed using open-source software, Faveo, and the project’s goal is to develop an interchangeable package that any interested conservationist could unpack and use.
In addition to the main goals of the project, Karanth is also emphasizing data collection. The information collected by the field crew will eventually show who is most affected by wildlife, and where repeat conflicts are most common.
“The experiment in India is, can wildlife live around people?” asks Robbins.
With WildSeve, Karanth hopes the answer is yes.
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