Guardian News Service/Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu

On the Valparai plateau in southern India people live in fear of unexpected encounters with giants in the dark.
As dusk settles, tea and coffee pickers collect rations from the townships run by the corporations that own the plantations and drift back towards their colonies. Buses drop workers on the roads and they make the precarious walk through the dark to their homes.
“They are scared. If I am there I am really scared,” said conservationist Dr Ananda Kumar, who created an SMS warning system to help workers live safely among elephants. Last month at a ceremony in London, his work won a £35,000 Whitley Award, dubbed a ‘Green Oscar’.
“That’s where the accidental encounters occurred. Most of the incidents. It’s very difficult to make out elephants in the dark. It’s a huge animal and looks like a rock and will be standing very still when they notice people.”
On the Valparai, high in the Western Ghats, tea and coffee companies have flattened 221sq km of prime rainforest for their plantations. The cleared land is now home to 70,000 workers, who live surrounded on all sides by the rugged, deeply forested Anamalai (Tamil for ‘elephant hills’).
But the 2,000 elephants which inhabit those hills don’t recognise the multinational companies’ claim to the plateau. Every year around 100 elephants use the plantations as a pathway to get to other parts of the rainforest.
“Elephants are strongly related to their ranges, this is scientifically established. It’s a part of their home, which is lost to plantations because of historical exploitation,” said Kumar, who has spent a decade working on a system of text messages, television alerts and warning lights that keep track of elephants as they move through the plantations.
The programme won the Whitley award for its novel and pragmatic approach to the elephant-human conflict, which kills 400 people and more than 100 elephants across India every year.
If they are startled or feel threatened, elephants can be very dangerous. In the small community of Valparai, 41 people have been killed since 1994. The problem, said Kumar, was that people simply did not realise elephants were nearby.
In a decade, Kumar’s warning system has cut the rate of deaths from three per year to just one. It is seen as an exemplar in the efforts to tackle the India-wide conflict between elephants and humans.
A team of trackers, called the conflict response team, watches over elephants as they pass through the plateau, they are assisted by Tamil Nadu forestry department workers and local informants, who act as extra scouts for the programme. Information is relayed via a hotline, manned by Kumar’s appropriately-named colleague Ganesh. The hotline receives over 1,000 calls each year. Many of them not seeking information about elephant locations but providing word of elephant sightings to their neighbours.
When an elephant is spotted, alerts are sent via text message to all those who reside within a few kilometres of an elephant’s location. At 5pm each night, local TV stations broadcast the locations of all elephants on the plateau. The warnings also go out to volunteer wardens in each colony, who operate red warning beacons that light up via text message. This allows people to plan their trips and let visiting friends know to beware.

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