In this From the Field interview, we speak to Dr. Raman Sukumar, a world renowned expert on Asian elephant conservation. He shares his thoughts on how technology could be used for mitigating elephant-human conflict, and reflects on the challenges technology development must overcome for successful application in the field.
Raman Sukumar’s fascination with elephants began by chance. Growing up in Chennai, at the age of 15 something changed in him completely: he began to see the natural world around him and started reading about the general destruction of nature that was going on. He jokes that there may have been some latent affinity for nature in his younger years because his grandmother used to call him a ‘vanvasi’ (forest dweller) – and that was well before the city boy had ever even been to a forest!
Prof. Sukumar began with a detailed study of the ecology and management of the Asian elephants in southern India as part of his doctoral research at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. His interest in the study of elephants grew over the next decade as he spent months in the field observing the animals go about their daily lives. His pioneering scientific study on the ecology of elephant-human interactions was published as a monograph by the Cambridge University Press in 1989 and fetched him the Presidential Award of the Chicago Zoological Society. Raman joined the faculty of the Centre for Ecological Sciences (CES) at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), in 1986, and soon organized a long-term ecological research programme in the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, the country’s first such reserve, in whose design he had played a key role. From 1997 to 2003 he served as Chair of the Asian Elephant Specialist Group of IUCN.
Prof. Sukumar has been honoured and recognised by the international conservation community for his efforts to conserve varied habitats and wildlife ,using the Asian elephant as a flagship species.
He was recently at the Capacity Building for Conservation in Asia conference in Pune, India. WILDLABS Associate, John Probert, was also in attendance and had a chance to speak with Prof. Sukumar and uncover his thoughts about how technology could be applied for Elephant conservation.
What is your background?
I’m an Ecologist, and I have been working in the area of elephant ecology, more broadly wildlife ecology, but more specifically elephant ecology. Also forest ecology and climate change.
What technology do you use for your work?
Well, I suppose the most significant technology that I use for work is the use of GPS transmitters for tracking the movement of elephants across landscapes. We’re using that to understand the space requirements of elephants as well as looking at the potential of GPS technology as an early warning system for elephants that are crop raiding, that come into come into contact with people.
What technology is needed?
The technology I would like to see developed is a cost effective technology that will prevent the elephants from coming out of forest areas into agricultural lands and settlements, because this is where a lot of the conflicts take place. Presently, electric fences are being used to keep elephants in side of forests, but somehow elephants are such intelligent creatures that they manage to overcome these fences, quite easily in many cases. So technology, if we can develop to put up these barriers, but they should be cost-effective and they should be effective and be able to keep intelligent animals inside the forest and not let them cross these barriers.
What are the biggest challenges you face?
I think some of the challenges really lie in the cost of developing technologies, and in making sure these are devices that last a long time, and that they can be used on a large scale. For instance, we can develop technologies, let’s say an acoustic device, that keeps elephants away when you play a particular type of song. The problem is that is it possible to adopt this technology and use it on very, very large areas? Because elephants can come out into agricultural lands over hundreds and hundreds of kilometres in given landscapes. So really, the challenge is to ensure that we are able to develop technologies that are applicable over large spatial scales to solve conservation issues.
Interviewer: John Probert
Leopard Camera Trap Image: INBAC / CLP / Panthera