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Hi-tech monitoring for elephants in India

Elephants over a vast area in eastern India are about to be collared – with the global positioning system (GPS). The states of West Bengal, Jharkhand and Orissa – which have about 1,400 pachyderms in the wild – will jointly undertake an ambitious project to put GPS collars on elephant herds. The exercise would not only help track the movement of animals, but also study the habits and routes they take to travel between the forests that straddle the three states.

“We have begun preparing a plan and hope to begin work on putting radio-collars on wild elephants in the states soon,” according to West Bengal’s chief conservator of forest V.K. Yadav. A similar effort last year by West Bengal alone yielded little result because it did not cover ‘migratory’ elephants – those from the forests of Jharkhand and Orissa. Forest villages in southern and northern West Bengal are plagued by attacks from wild elephants that emerge from the Dalma forest in Jharkhand in search of food and destroy paddy crops and huts. Villagers chase them away with flaming torches, the noise of crackers and beating of drums. However, the elephants seem to be losing their fear of such objects, say wildlife experts. Similar problems existed in the forest villages of Similipal in Orissa and Dalma in Jharkhand.

Wild elephants killed 252 people in West Bengal in the last five years, and 122 of the animals died, many of them allegedly poisoned by villagers. The elephants will now be tracked with the GPS technology. Their movement can be monitored even on mobile phones. GPS collaring is an improvement over satellite collaring technology, also used to track the pachyderms. In the satellite collar, an embedded antenna transmits signals to the Argos French Satellite, from where images are sent to the earth station in the US. From there, the elephants’ movements are sent through e-mails to computers at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore.

In the GPS system on the other hand, the elephants can be traced much more quickly and one need not wait for e-mails to arrive. The cost of a GPS collar is $4,000. The severity of elephant attacks had forced West Bengal to consider giving the pachyderms a travel corridor through the jungles to help them avoid contact with humans. But the plan for the ‘elephant highway’ and ‘elephant habitat’ were shelved because of the huge costs involved.