Grassroots Innovations for Wildlife Conservation

In the fourth installment of his case study series focusing on preventing human-wildlife conflict, Aditya Gangadharan discusses how local communities develop, test, and implement their own solutions. This article provides valuable insight into how the conservation technology community can and should support the innovations and ideas of people working to solve vital conservation issues like human-wildlife conflict prevention locally.

You can find the first three installments of Aditya's case studies on WILDLABS:

3 Ways Your Conservation Technology Could Become a Shiny Pile of Junk, and How to Avoid It

Testing an Early Warning System to Mitigate Human-Wildlife Conflict on the Bhutan-India Border

Locally-Brewed Conservation Technology from a Small Town in North Bengal

This series first appeared on LinkedIn, republished here with permission of the author.

Date published: 2020/05/19

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©Deep Shubhra Biswas. Tripwire sets off a buzzer, which alerts farmers to wildlife entering their fields. A common design.

Wildlife hackathons. Conservation ideathons. Gives you quite a rush, particularly if you are from a field that is as resistant to creativity and innovation as conservation biology. People who are highly skilled in technology, design, innovation, volunteering their time to develop solutions to wildlife conservation problems, and the best getting a prize at the end. And that prize, usually, is also the end of the story. Not many prototypes that emerge from these events actually make it to real field application, which is not surprising. It is one thing to sit in an urban makerspace and design a great prototype, and another to actually implement it in the harsh realities of the field.

But, what if I told you that ideathons and hackathons - without the branding, hype and lattes - are happening every day among the communities that live alongside wildlife? It takes the form of local residents with a little bit of self-taught skills in mechanics, electronics and animal behavior, who dont want to stay awake at night to guard their crops from wildlife. They consult the local carpenter for ideas. They try looking up a few videos on Youtube (there is no content in their own languages, so they struggle and make do with whatever little English they can understand). They talk to their friends and try to learn from their experiences. The local forest guard provides inputs on animal behavior and warns them not to harm any wildlife. And somehow, they put together in their backyards a jugaad early warning system to alert them when animals are entering crop fields. Tripwire based systems are popular, like the one sketched by Deep Shubhra Biswas above (he, along with Abhinav Dey and Koustav Choudhury, was also instrumental in finding 32 such innovators across North Bengal).

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Very basic jugaad - you doze on your roof, and periodically pull the rope, making the tin bell ring and cloths move. Both sound and sight - interesting. What simple improvements could make this more automated, robust, effective?

These jugaads help for some time, until, like all jugaads, they break - physically, or maybe they just become ineffective (say due to animal habituation). And the innovator may not have the money, time or motivation to go through all of this again. And the design itself may not be replicable due to non-standardized inputs, methods, setup and no documentation.

Because of the crude and temporary nature of such mitigation measures, they are often ignored. But they are important because:

1.   They demonstrate agency among individuals (the willingness to exercise ones' own ability to address local problems). This is important given the general apathy, fatalism and sometimes even hostility towards externally-driven measure to mitigate conflict.

2.   It presents the possibility of an alternative paradigm of dealing with wildlife conflict; one that is more consistent with the increasing democratization and assertiveness among local communities. Here, external parties provide the technical, financial and legal support structure (with safeguards) to develop and polish the ideas that local changemakers come up with. So they get to upgrade their skills, maybe even sell their new inventions if they are good enough, while also mitigating conflict. This gives more local ownership of solutions, and hence more potential for long term sustainability.

3.   This approach also aligns two major motivating factors: aspiration to participate in the modern innovation-driven economy, and the social standing that comes from being acknowledged locally as a problem solver. So by supporting individuals with ideas to solve local problems, you could get benefits for people and conservation, in a way that is more creative, entrepreneurial and grounded than your typical conservation intervention.

Heres an imaginary journey of a farmer from Bhutan who is using the device below:

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A rod attached to a cement sack that acts as a sail, and forces it to move between two heavy beer bottles. The bottle are pushed apart, then hit each other, making a noise and scaring animals. 

Lets say this farmer joins our support programme. He now learns from the animal behavior module about habituation, so he wants multiple different sounds to be produced, and only at night. He uses skills from the design thinking to develop a new sail that uses the strong diurnal change in local wind direction to function only at night; he also supplements the beer bottles with a range of other materials that vary in the sounds they make. By now, he has teamed up with a local engineering student, and they figure out how to generate such sounds electronically, and 3D print a weatherproof case for this device in our makerspace. Getting sick of these sounds blasting off at random during the night, they combine it with a trigger mechanism so its set off only when animals try to enter the field. And now they start replicating this in other farms either as a source of income, or give away the design for free.

So, can any of this actually work, realistically? My colleagues and I are in the middle of testing it out. Temporarily delayed by COVID, but we'll get there!

Aditya Gangadharan is a conservation biologist focusing on large mammals. His background in data science, technology & entrepreneurship allows him to develop innovative conservation projects dealing with urgent conservation issues like mitigating human-wildlife conflict. Most recently, Aditya worked on transforming the IUCN MIKE (Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants) programme in South Asia. Aditya is a WILDLABS community member.

How can technology support the innovations of local communities? Start a conversation about it in our Human Wildlife Conflict group forum.

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