The gentle giants of Sumatra's forests have long been threatened by habitat loss and human-elephant conflict. But a small NGO based in Indonesia's Riau Province has found a way to track the movements of these endangered animals using GPS technology, preventing violent clashes between elephants and humans.
The Rimba Satwa Foundation (RSF), a group of animal conservationists based in Riau, has been working to preserve what remains of the endangered Sumatran elephant herds. The organization has been grappling with the challenge of balancing preservation with supporting the livelihoods of local villagers, who have seen their crops and land destroyed by the hungry elephants.
In 2016, a herd of around 30 wild elephants descended on the village of Muara Bungkal, devouring about 50 hectares of land and costing the village over $65,000 in lost crops. Then, having trampled the fields and eaten their fill, they moved on to the next village. Clashes between humans and elephants in Riau have become more common since the 1990s, said Subrianto, the village chief, who goes by a single name like many Indonesians.
RSF had been operating blind in their efforts to track the elephants, leaving them ill-equipped to deal with the ongoing conflict. However, in 2020, the organization began to tag and track the elephants using giant 30-pound GPS collars, alerting local villagers when the collared elephants and their herds approached farms or houses.
The system has been a resounding success. By 2022, the organization had fitted GPS collars on five herds of wild elephants, more than half of the population roaming the wilds of Sumatra. Not a single violent clash has been recorded over the past year, according to RSF members.
Before the collar system, the community had been resigned to rising tensions with the elephants. As Indonesia's palm oil and paper industries grew, elephant territory gave way to plantations, and millions of hectares of tropical primary forest were lost to actions like logging by companies and farmers' backburning.
"The elephants can be terrifying, but it is understandable when they come into our villages because there is no food left for them," Subrianto said.
RSF's success is part of a broader trend in animal-human conflicts, where NGOs are turning to monitoring technology to broker peace. Companies now do a brisk trade in elephant GPS collars, and a Nepali software engineer has designed an app-based alert system to de-escalate encounters between elephants and people. One method even imitates the sound of buzzing bees, playing on the elephants' threat perception to drive them away.
While conservationists have experimented with surveillance drones to monitor herd movements and deter poachers, collars are more versatile, usable on big cats and bears, and also less expensive. Syukri, of RSF, studied electronics in college before pivoting to elephant conservation. "I just knew that whenever I saw an elephant, it made me happy," he told Rest of World.
The success of RSF's GPS collar system highlights the importance of technology in preserving endangered species and promoting sustainable development. As countries around the world work towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), initiatives like this one can play a critical role in achieving a more sustainable and equitable global society.
In particular, SDG 15 calls for the protection, restoration, and sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, and the conservation of biodiversity. The success of RSF's GPS collar system in preventing human-elephant conflict, preserving Sumatra's endangered elephant herds, and supporting the livelihoods of local communities is a shining example of what can be achieved when technology is used in harmony with environmental conservation and sustainable development goals.
By utilizing GPS collars to track the movement of elephants, RSF has been able to better understand the behavior of these animals and their interactions with human communities. This information has enabled them to develop targeted interventions that address specific human-elephant conflict hotspots, such as the implementation of elephant deterrent fences or the relocation of problematic elephants.
Furthermore, RSF's approach has been grounded in the principles of community-based conservation, which involves working closely with local communities to understand their needs and concerns, and developing solutions that are mutually beneficial for both humans and elephants. For example, RSF has established a compensation scheme for farmers who have suffered crop damage as a result of elephant incursions, and has also supported the development of alternative livelihoods such as ecotourism.
In addition to its direct impact on the conservation of Sumatra's elephant population, RSF's GPS collar system has broader implications for the global conservation movement. It demonstrates that technology can be a powerful tool for conservationists, enabling them to collect data and make informed decisions about conservation interventions. This approach is particularly relevant in the context of climate change, which is exacerbating the challenges faced by many endangered species.
Overall, the success of RSF's GPS collar system provides an inspiring example of how technology can be used to address complex environmental challenges, promote sustainable development, and create a more equitable and prosperous world.
More information: https://restofworld.org/2023/surveillance-tech-saving-wild-elephants/