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.

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