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Using Drones To Mitigate Human-Elephant Conflict - Sri Lanka Elephant & Leopard Conservation

Mision takeoffThe PachyDRONEs© will be keeping an eye on wild elephants (pachyderms) in their native habitat and eventually help to mitigate human elephant conflicts in Sri Lanka. The field staff have embarked on a new pilot research project to determine how drones can be used to reduce deadly human-elephant conflicts in villages and fields adjacent to the Wasgamuwa National Park; home to hundreds of wild Asian elephants that live in close proximity to people.

Human-elephant Conflict

The fear psychosis in Podi Menika’s eyes and in her demeanor is vividly apparent even though the elephant attack on her house happened months ago. It was late in the night of September 21st 2016 and Podi Menike, her son and small daughter were sleeping in their house. Things were about to change drastically just as their previous experience when the worst possible nightmare they could imagine happened, and changed their entire lives, when Podimenike’s husband and the children’s father was killed by an elephant right outside their home.

On this night too they suddenly woke up to the sounds of an elephant breaking into their house to get at the rice they had grown with much hardship and stored in the house. Podi Menike began to be scared for her childrens lives. Huddled in the middle of their small home utterly helpless they wailed and cried in fear as the elephant broke the walls of their home.

Podimenike’s main concern was the safety of her children whom she got to creep under the bed so the elephant will not see them. That was all what she could think of at the time. She yelled loudly to her neighbors for help, but no one could come to her aid since they all feared the elephant. Podi Menike had to endure the fear of death for more than an hour until the neighbors’ were able to gather enough people to chase the marauding elephant in the middle of the night.

Damages caused by the elephantThe above tableau plays out every night across the length and breadth of Sri Lanka where elephants and human habitat overlap and conflict between people and elephants is intense. As this incident shows an elephant in the night is a huge danger mainly because it has all the advantages. It blends in with the surrounding vegetation in the dark effectively as it waits behind any concealing trees or buildings.

Elephants venture into villages even during the daytime and the risk they pose to people does not diminish because they are more easily seen. Most crop raiders are sneaky, cunning and very aggressive due to all the harassment they had received from people. They do not hesitate to kill and will do so swiftly and effectively. Therefore villagers are taking considerable risks to chase elephants by lighting firecrackers, banging on drums and metal pieces and shouting since they need to approach the elephant for these methods to be effective, and then, when all these efforts fail some villagers’ resort to shooting elephants and lacing food with poison and explosives. It is paramount to find an effective method whereby raiding elephants can be chased off without having to put villagers’ lives or the elephant’s life at risk. Using drones could be the solution to develop such an effective method. Additionally the drones can be fitted with 15 watt 7000 lux LED dual spot lights which enables them to be flown during the night.

Field Observations

In 2010 when flying a helicopter to film elephants in the Mahaweli River floodplains it was observed that elephants were very agitated and nervous of the helicopter. They bunched together initially but as the helicopter hovered over them they ran to the nearest forest cover. Six years after that incident in October 2015 when a drone was used similarly to take aerial footage of elephants they reacted the same way. Four large dominant bulls broke rank and moved at a very fast gait towards the nearest forest cover. In Africa in the Congo, researchers observed similar behaviors when they tried to use drones to study elephants.

A herd agitated by the helicopterThese observations confirm that elephants possibly due to their innate inability to look directly up are terrified of any aerial disturbance that they cannot see. The Drone's noise which also closely resembles the humming of bees and the fact that a physical object is hovering over them induces them to flee from the perceived threat from above. These observations ratify that drones could be used effectively to chase elephants away from areas where they pose a serious threat and danger to people, crops and property.

What is also interesting is that during preliminary trials using a drone, the field staff observed that female and male herds and even solitary bulls did not stampede but moved at a determined fast pace to get away from the drone. This is an important observation because when drones are used to move elephants especially inside villages, it is crucial that they don’t stampede and cause more grievous damage to people and property.

Footage was taken in non-conflict areas in Wasgamuwa, therefore the drones’ missions were non-threatening and not to chase elephants. Nevertheless it is interesting observe how different the reactions of the single bull and the female herd was to the drones. The bull became very agitated and took off to the nearest forest cover while the herd formed a unified body and stayed in the same open area. These two incidents are not sufficient to make definite deductions but it is interesting that the male and the females reacted to the drone very differently. This could be because it is very rare for female herds to raid villages or fields. Whereas most crop raiding and attacks on village homes are by bulls. The nervous behavior of the bull at the approach of the drone could be based on its’ past experiences raiding villages. It would be very interesting to observe the variations in male/female behaviors as we fly PachyDRONEs© in various conflict situations.

Remote control at a safe distanceThe most important fact is that a drone can be used from a safe distance and does not impose any risks on the villager or villagers who otherwise have to get close to a potential killer elephant to chase it away by making noises, or to injure it by shooting or by lighting explosives. The drone eliminates all the dangers that people and elephants face in such situations by providing a safe method to move elephants away from villages and fields. Drones deployed in villages could provide an effective solution to mitigate human-elephant conflicts under these specific conditions .

Today lightweight autonomous flying vehicles known as drones and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are been used to track animals in their natural habitat, monitor the health of rainforests, and even combat crime by detecting poachers via thermal imaging. And the added bonus is that they're entirely affordable. Therefore using drones to chase elephant from villages and field is a very feasible and cost effective method in comparison to erecting electric fences, digging ditches or translocating elephants.

The drones have the following advantages:

• Readily available technology
• Affordable
• Can be easily adapted to changing situations
• Needs very basic logistics for the ground operations
• Does not cause trauma and stress to elephants
• No risk to elephants
• No risk to people
• Not life threatening to either elephants or people
• Eliminates the danger to people and elephants
• No need to physically handle elephants

Find out more about our Sri Lanka Elephant And Leopard Conservation Project here

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