About Vivek Thuppil

I'm an animal behaviorist and obtained my Ph.D. from the University of California, Davis in 2012. My general research interests are mainly at exploring how technology can be used to minimize negative interactions between humans and villagers, thus improving conservation prospects for an endangered species and economic prospects for villagers as well in southern India, which is my study region.

Press coverage in the Mail Today

I’m delighted to report that my research on exploring novel techniques of mitigating crop-raiding has received some exposure in the print media. A brief article regarding this research technique and its effectiveness appeared in page 11 of the Mail Today, printed at New Delhi on June 7, 2012. The article clipping as it appeared in print is attached below:

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The newspaper article references a journal article I recently published as first author in the Journal of International Wildlife Law and Policy, as well as some more recent findings. The journal article mentioned above reviews the history of human-elephant interactions in recent history as well as longer term evolutionary history. It reviews the various laws enacted over the years to protect Asian elephants in India as well as the current conservation scenario. The article highlights the importance of novel research measures, briefly describes one aspect of our own research in mitigating human-elephant conflict, and discusses future directions for elephant conservation. For a pdf copy, please free to email me at vthuppil@ucdavis.edu

To conclude, I’m grateful to Mr. Dinesh Sharma, Science Editor of the Mail Today, for deciding to publish an article on my research. I hope that by publicizing this research method widely, it could be added to the toolkit used by wildlife managers around the world as they attempt to balance the conservation needs of this charismatic Endangered species with the aspirations of growing human populations in elephant-range countries.

Articles citation:

1) Sharma, D. (2012, June 7). New device to keep raiding jumbos away. Mail Today, p. 11.

2) Thuppil and Coss. (2012). Using threatening sounds as a conservation tool: evolutionary bases for managing human-elephant conflict in India. Journal of International Wildlife Law and Policy, 15 (2), pp. 167-185.

Taking a good idea and making it work

As I mentioned in one of the previous posts, we tested different sound playbacks to see which ones would be effective in mitigating human-elephant conflict in the form of crop-raiding by elephants.

While our findings showed that under certain circumstances and with careful placement, sound playbacks could be used to reliably keep elephants out of farms, there was a crucial next step that had to be taken. Our testing methodology used expensive equipment and required frequent maintenance – or in other words, more $ – and thus, it was impractical for large scale use by individual farmers or wildlife managers.

So we set out with the task of taking that good idea of using sound playbacks as an “electronic scarecrow” and making it practically applicable. With a grant funded by the Rufford Small Grants Foundation, we began developing a low-cost sound playback system. There are two critical aspects to the low-cost playback device that were addressed.

1) Location, location, location – As mentioned in the earlier post, we needed a location where there was already an existing method of elephant deterrence, where that second method of deterrence would be furthered strengthened by the placement of this speaker. We also wanted a fairly narrow gap that elephants would try to pass through, so we could position our playback speaker accordingly. Consulting with the Forest Department of Karnataka, we found one such location at Omkar Range of Bandipur Tiger Reserve.

In the photo above, you’re looking out from the forest towards the fields. The elephants walk along the path leading straight ahead and try to cross a road that lies ahead. Between them and the road / freedom stands a double-layered solar-powered electric fence. There’s a forest watchtower on the left-side of the photo where a group of anti-poaching watchers spend the night and try to scare away elephants that approach the fence. There’s a trench towards the right side of the photo where crossing isn’t possible. So the elephants are forced to walk straight ahead if they want to try to break through the fence and as they do so, they’ll encounter a playback from the speaker first. Goldilocks herself couldn’t have found a more perfect place for this speaker!

2) The system last year was on an “always-on” basis. The speaker, mp3 player, and sensors were always on and when the sensors were tripped, the sound playback would take place. This year, largely with technical assistance from Andre Pittet of the Centre for Electronics Design and Technology, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, we changed the system to a model where the speaker and mp3 playback device would remain permanently tripped, but OFF. When the sensor detected elephants, it would turn on the speaker and mp3 playback device and thus the sounds would play. A good analogue would be if you wanted to blow the horn in your car. You *could* keep the car constantly running and blow the horn when you want to. Or you could keep the horn constantly pressed down and only turn on the car when you want the horn to be played. With this modification, we were able to extend battery life from two days to one month, a FIFTEEN-FOLD increase!

And with this, we were ready to test. And here comes what you’ve been patiently waiting for while reading through all the text above, the video!

In the video above, the elephant approaches the electric fence. The watchers see it, shine a torch at it and yell. No effect. The tiger growl playback then comes on. Effect.The perfect combination of location, design and playback.

Success box: CHECK

Amateur photographer pays the ultimate price for attempting a risky shot

A reminder that despite a reputation as being “gentle giants”, elephants can be very dangerous, especially when there are calves in the herd as was the case here. Also, it’s important to remember that crowd control measures and barricades are enacted by the police and forest officials for the safety of the general public and an unfortunate incident like this could have been averted if these measures had been respected.

The Hindu : Cities / Bangalore : Elephant kills amateur lensman.

Lose encounter, fatal consequence – The Times of India

Karnataka: Techie trampled to death

From The Hindu – “Below: People running for safety when one of the elephants from the herd that strayed into a eucalyptus grove in Mantapa village near Bannerghatta on Friday charged towards them. Photo: KPN”

An elephant’s daily bread

Today was my day off from field work, so I got a haircut, did laundry, caught up on archiving receipts, and took care of all the other essential aspects of field research that can’t be taken care of on regular working days. In the evening, I took my field assistants to the domesticated elephant camp at Theppakadu to watch the daily feeding of the elephants there, something that two of them hadn’t seen before. You can observe wild elephants all you like, but standing just a couple of meters from a domesticated elephant is when you can really appreciate the size of these magnificent animals.

In the video above, you only truly realize how huge these giants are when the man walks up to this handsome tusker with the ball of food in his hand. That ball of food, by the way, is a mixture of cooked raagi (finger millet) and rice flavoured with a little bit of salt and jaggery. An elephant’s daily bread, if you will.

Honoured and further motivated

Yesterday, I had a chance to meet with the Deputy Conservator of Forests of Bandipur Tiger Reserve, Mr. Hanumanthappa. This was my first meeting with him since his return from his official trip to Kenya a few weeks ago. While chatting about his trip there, he told me that he was really impressed with my conflict-mitigation research.

He told me that when I first started my research here at Bandipur Tiger Reserve, he didn’t think there was anything special about it and that he thought that I was merely implementing something similar to what others are doing elsewhere. But he told me that while he was in Kenya and seeing what conflict mitigation measures are being tested over there around various national parks, he thought about my work a lot and was happy to tell people that such innovative work was being conducted in his forest.

Needless to say, I feel VERY VERY HONOURED to receive such high praise from the top forest official in Bandipur Tiger Reserve, particularly one that I’ve always respected a great deal. While I’ve always been motivated when it comes to elephants, these kind words are further motivation for me to ensure that the work I do now and in the future is always deserving of such praise!

The idea of scaring elephants from crop-raiding and what we learned from it

A few years ago, we wondered whether elephants could be kept from raiding crop fields by scaring them. With a grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Asian Elephant Conservation Fund, we decided to try out the concept of using what would pretty much be a technologically complex scarecrow. We got some interesting results.

1) We saw that elephants would get pretty scared of tigers and would beat a pretty hasty retreat.

 

2) They’d get scared of people too & they’d make their displeasure at having their attempt to feed known loud and clear!

 

3) And they didn’t generally have a very high opinion of leopards, even though to me that seemed to be the scariest sound!

 

BUT!!!

4) Even a leopard growl was effective at scaring an elephant if they had both it and something else such as an electric fence to deal with.

 

5) Now elephants really don’t like solar-powered electric fences because they provide a non-lethal, but pretty painful shock.

 

6) Despite the pain of dealing with a fence, they are known to break fences every now and then and gorge on those delicious, delicious crops. The villagers are then stuck with the repair task the next morning, some of them left considerably poorer as a result of the elephant’s feasting.

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What we learned: One of the most important things we learned last year was that these sound playbacks could be very effective when they were used along with something such as an electric fence. The playback would keep elephants from going on to touch the electric fence. Even if the elephant habituated to the sound, the electric fence was there as a second line of defence. And since the electric fence would be tested less often, there would be less breakage – in fact, at the village shown above, there were no instances of the fence breaking after we set up our playback system. The elephants were deterred by the playbacks each and every time they came to the area.

The circle of life near the jungle

Our human-elephant conflict mitigation efforts are aimed at addressing the issue of crop-raiding by Asian elephants. This is where elephants enter cropland near the forest boundary and help themselves to the crops that farmers are growing for human consumption, causing significant economic losses to the affected farmers, which I’ll explain a bit further in later posts.

Elephant crop-raiding also has a more indirect effect on wildlife conservation efforts. In late-October of this year, I happened to get a chance to talk to members of the inaugural Tiger [Conservation] Task Force during their training in Bandipur National Park. They really liked my work and told me about how elephant crop-raiding really affected their ability to convince villagers to not encroach upon the sanctity of the protected wildlife areas. That gave me the idea to create a “Circle of life near the jungle” graphic, presented below. [forgive the strange looking cattle, my drawing skills have a ways to go yet).

1) Elephants enter villages and raid on croplands.

2) Farmers let their cattle into the forest to graze. Wildlife officials don’t have too much credibility to stop these cattle from grazing in wildlife areas because the villagers point out the issue of wildlife such as elephants entering their own lands.

3) Grazing by cattle in wildlife areas depletes suitable vegetation for elephants, enhancing the attractiveness of lush croplands and perhaps exacerbating elephant raiding. Thus the circle of life near the jungle continues to spiral …

In addition, there is a ripple effect on other wildlife. Grazing by cattle within the jungle not only reduces forage for elephants, it reduces forage for all herbivores such as deer or gaur, which in turn are food for carnivores such as tigers and leopards.

Perhaps this is why the members of the Tiger Task Force were so interested in our work. They feel that if we can reliably keep elephants out of croplands, they will have the credibility to enforce the ban on cattle entering wildlife areas, enhancing the prospects of all species that within these protected areas.