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December 31, 2008

GPS technology helps game rangers keep elephants away from cropsrangers

The pioneering scheme allows rapid response teams to race to scare them off before they strip villages of a year's maize or banana harvest in one night. An average of 25 such 'problem elephants' are culled each year in Kenya.

Now some of the most notorious crop-raiders have been fitted with £2,500 collars which contain a mobile phone SIM card which sends an hourly GPS position to a central server in Nairobi, Kenya's capital.

If the elephants stray close to a virtual 'fence' whose limits have been programmed into customised software, a text message is sent to the mobile phone of the closest wildlife rangers. They then scramble vehicles carrying spotlights and armed guards to scare the elephants away from the fields.

"At first I could not believe that the elephant was sending me a text message," said Richard Lesowapir, one of the senior rangers involved in the scheme. "But now we see it is definitely the most effective way for us to find them quickly and stop them destroying the farmers' livelihoods."

December used to be the worst month for raids on Basilia Mwasu's half-acre plot of maize plants.

"They would come to the village every night. They would finish one field completely and then move on to the next one," the 31-year-old said as her two daughters aged three and seven played in the sunshine behind her.

"We tried to scare them off with shouting or burning rags soaked in paraffin, but they would make a terrible noise and charge at us. Many times I thought we would die."

Mrs Mwasu's homestead lies by the fence of the 90,000 acre Ol Pejeta conservancy, in Kenya's central highlands 140 miles north of Nairobi.

Two of the worst crop-raiding elephants there have been given the text messaging collars, including a huge bull named Kimani who was such a repeat offender that he was listed to be culled.

"There used to be three or four groups going out every night and raiding a dozen or more farmers' fields," said Batian Craig, conservation and security manager at the conservancy.

"We tried everything we could, bigger electric fences, planting chilies which we'd heard repelled elephants elsewhere. Nothing worked until we fitted the collars."

Since then, there has not been a single case of an elephant straying out of the conservancy and destroying a farmer's crop.

"We know the elephants bring a lot of visitors to our country, but they used to bring us so many problems," said Mrs Mwasu.

"Now they stay on their side and we stay on ours, and we know that we can live together."

The scheme was set up by Save The Elephants, a UK-registered charity based in Kenya, which is now expanding the 'geo-fencing' programme from its pilot at Ol Pejeta to five other sites across Kenya.

The technology also allows conservationists to track elephants as they move between grazing areas, and to create maps visible on Google Earth to build up data on where to send anti-poaching patrols to best protect the vulnerable animals.

In Kenya, South Africa, Mali and the Central African Republic, Save The Elephants is tracking 71 elephants fitted with GSM or satellite collars


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