Picture of Dr. Max Graham for Mobile Thinkers Interview about using Mobile Phones to Save Elephants

Dr. Max Graham, Director Laikipia Elephant Project

Unlike the number of African elephants, which have undergone a significant decline in recent years, mobile technology and the number of mobile phones in Africa has expanded rapidly.  Until I read some of the work of Dr. Max Graham, the director of the Laikipia Elephant Project in Kenya, I never would have guessed that an influx of mobile phones could save the lives of these endangered animals.


The Laikipia region near the center of Kenya is the current home of Dr. Graham for the very reason that it is also home to the second largest elephant population in the country.  The rates of human-elephant conflict are high in Laikipia.  Property is regularly damaged, crops are destroyed and in the process elephants, and sometimes even people, are killed every year.


Dr. Graham and his team are testing various types of mobile technology to reduce the number of these deaths. He recently took an hour out of his evening to tell me about their newest tests of GSM Collars, their mobile early warning system, and how he still has high hopes for the Push-to-Talk technology he successfully tested several years ago.


Below is an edited version of our conversation (which, due to technical problems with Skype, we had via our two mobile phones and which I managed to recorded with a second mobile I’m often too embarrassed to admit I carry around).

Q: Can you give me an update on how your project to reduce human-elephant conflict has progressed in respect to mobile technology?

A. Sadly, since we carried out the trial of Push-to-Talk (using mobile phones as sort of walkie talkies to monitor conditions), Safaricom decided not to roll that technology out commercially. I think we should explore looking at other networks to see if they can bring that back to Kenya because it has huge applications for wide security on national parks and conservancies.

Despite that, the way in which we communicate with the project team, and across our partners, has transformed dramatically as result of mobile phone technology.

On a daily basis we have a network of scouts in the field and they send me text messages and tell me exactly the status of each section of an electrified fence that stops elephants from entering small farms.  This allows me to monitor – on a daily basis – just how well that fence is performing.  Those same scouts send text messages about whether or not they find any evidence of crop raiding or mortality.   I keep a map of this area in my office with the data on it and it tells me exactly what’s been happening every day in terms of Human Elephant interaction across a 10,000 Sq Kilometer area.

Mobile technology has dramatically changed the way we monitor the situation on the ground and then of course there’s the whole purpose of responding to this information. That’s also done by mobile phone. When I get this information in, I can communicate to the rapid response team or the wildlife authorities to get people out on the ground.

Q: If an elephant is found to be damaging fences, eating crops and causing general problems, is killing that elephant the typical response?

A. Yeah, but people have to tread carefully about whether one elephant is causing all the damage.  Elephants teach other elephants to break fences and destroy crops so you could have a situation where you actually have 50 elephants doing the damage rather than just one.

At the moment, the Kenyan wildlife services don’t have any alternative but to shoot those elephants.  If they don’t then the situation on the ground could be the same as we’ve had in the past — a million dollars worth of crops destroyed in the year. In trying to manage that problem you begin to understand who the “trouble” elephants are and managing those individuals is one key ingredient to getting it right because they teach other elephants.

Elephants can learn that a fence is associated with a risk.  That it’s not just a bit of wire and wood. Our idea is to get the elephants habituated to the idea that a fence is actually a real problem.

We know in practice on the ground that this learned behavior is exactly what happens. I’ve been tracking movements of elephants up here for about 6 years now and we’ve got places in the Laikipia, where elephants respect a boundary.  On one side of this boundary is a large-scale ranch that has been turned into a conservancy for protection and conservation of wildlife.  On the other side is land owned by a pastoralist group that traditionally kills elephants.  There’s actually nothing there to separate these two areas.  There’s no fence.  There’s no visible demarcation whatsoever.  Yet, the elephants know that if they cross the boundary, they’ll get shot. That just goes to show that if you enforce a boundary, elephants will learn.

The management of elephants in human-dominated landscapes is all about risk.  We don’t want to create real risk of course, but we do want to create perceptions of risk to elephants.  That way we can manage where we don’t want them to go.   At the same time we make sure that they have enough space to be free and evolve into whatever they’re going to be in many years time.

Q:  Is this where your idea of the GPS Collar came in?  How many elephants have you collared and how does it work?

A. We put 2 collars on in July and we want to put on a total of 10 by the end of the year.

Tomorrow morning I’m putting a GPS collar on a 3rd elephant.  Now that GPS collar is fitted with … it’s got a GPS in it obviously…but it also has a SIM card like the one in your mobile phone.  It’s a new generation called GSM collars and they’re quite clever in that they record information on an hourly basis showing exactly where the elephant is located and they transmit that information to me via a GSM network.  I can then go on the internet and access their movement on an hourly online basis.  What’s really important is that these collars also activate a text message warning when the elephant approaches a boundary that we pre-determine.  This, together with technology we’re applying now, is called an e-fence system.

When the elephant approaches the fence, (the boundary), the collar will send an early warning text message to us and then we will know exactly where he is and we’ll mobilize a team to go and scare him away.  The idea is to teach him to stop challenging that fence.

The elephant tomorrow is called Ishmael.  We’re going to put a collar on him, monitor his movements and within about 6 months we’re then going to start triggering the e-fence system.

Q: Do you feel this collar system is going to be more effective long term than something like Push-to-Talk where you have people monitoring activities and reporting back?

A. That’s a good question.  We certainly haven’t moved away from the Push-to-Talk approach.

The future of wildlife conservation & wildlife management has to be cost-effective so the approach where you mobilize a group of people to take responsibility and action in vulnerable places is really key.  What we found over the last 5 years of trialing simple things farmers can do on their own, is that a farmer that’s alerted to the presence of elephants is much more likely to defend his farm.  That’s why early warning is so important for our system.

Putting GPS collars on elephants is very expensive and for us it’s something we’re fortunate enough to trial because we’re hooked up with some well-resourced conservancies in this particular landscape. So in the places where you don’t have those sorts of resources, putting a GPS collar on an elephant isn’t going to be much good at all.  You can find a much more relevant and affordable technology for farmers.  We are just trialing a whole range of tools that could be applied.

I certainly haven’t abandoned text messages or more affordable mobile technology to mobilize groups of different actors to scare elephants away from people.  The Push-to-Talk system that we trialed definitely has a future.

We really want to re-introduce that technology because it works like radios.  You could have all sorts of people out there on the same network.  What was extraordinary about that was that you have people in Nairobi and they would listen in on a conversation we were having locally.  That would create a sort of peer pressure for local people to act from their bosses higher up, particularly the Kenyan wildlife services.  It was a very effective system in that it connected people nationally to address a local problem.

Q: Do you see applications for your work beyond human-elephant conflict?

A. Yeah, I think the opportunity of using mobile phone technology is absolutely massive in managing human-wildlife conflict and improving it.  I think it has the ability to reconnect people with nature and that’s not just here but across the world.

What I’m really curious to explore in the future is citizen science – the ability of a community to monitor wildlife and report back to a system with their mobile phones.  For example, people taking pictures with their mobile phones and sending those pictures to a database that is able to recognize them and link the picture up with stored information that relates to the subject.

There are huge roles mobile phones can play in terms of monitoring and getting people involved in wildlife conservation.

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