Friday, June 13, 2008

The Marauding Elephant Network

In the Laikipia district, near the Mount Kenya Forest in Africa, farmers are nervously alert. Danger lurks from the forest. One never knows when an attack may come. With little warning, one could lose valuable crops, livestock or even one's life. Not to guerrilla insurgents or government troops. This is not a military situation. The marauders are elephants. They emerge from the forest wreaking havoc at random. When farmers hear the whistling sound of their approach, they do the only thing that makes sense. They activate their marauding elephant communications network.

The root of this problem is the age-old conflict of man versus nature. In the centuries when there were few humans and a seemingly unlimited bounty of nature, humanity could clear out a niche and protect it by whatever means necessary. But we overdid it. Species after species has been wiped off the face of the Earth or nearly so, as we slashed, burned, and settled our way to an accelerating population currently over 6.6 billion. Only now are we coming to our senses to realize that conquering nature and destroying it diminishes us as a species and ruins a irreplaceable heritage.

From the elephant's perspective, it is we who are intruding on their ancient habitat and defacing the land with our agriculture and settlement. The 5,000 remaining members of the herd live in the Mount Kenya Forest, a national park and forest reserve. It is also a United Nations UNESCO World Heritage Site that has garnered international interest in preserving it. The African elephants themselves are highly intelligent and social creatures that deserve the right to a decent and natural existence.

So, what can help people and elephants co-exist in a situation where both want to occupy the same territory? Technology comes to the rescue in the form of an electronic communications network that farmers can use to warn each other and the Kenya Wildlife Service when elephants threaten. In this case, it's a special PTT or Push to Talk cellular phone system. In the United States, Nextel is known for PTT service on their IDEN network. The African PoC or Push to Talk on Cellular uses the international GSM cellular standard. Handsets can be used for standard phone calls and text messages as well as PTT group communications. Precious communications resources will likely be conserved, however, as places to recharge the handsets are few and far between in this area.

More rapid communications helps farmers stay out of the way of any marauding elephants and lets them alert the Kenya Wildlife Service in time to respond to the threat. This gives the farmers a way to protect their lives and property without getting into conflicts with the elephants that can be fatal to either party.

The GSM PoC communications system is among a variety of techniques that help people and elephants peacefully coexist. One clever low tech solution is for farmers to plant chillis around the perimeters of their fields. Elephants hate chillis, which helps to keep them out of the fields. The chillis can then be turned into hot sauces and seasonings that are sold as Elephant Pepper products.

Another approach to protecting wild animals, such as elephants, is to create sanctuaries where they can live without fear of poaching or intrusion by humanity. The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust conserves elephants and rhinos in Kenya and has a program where you can foster an orphan elephant. The Amboseli Trust for Elephants protects elephants in the Amboseli area of Kenya and is a leader in scientific research regarding elephants.

In the United States, The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee and the Performing Animal Wildlife Sanctuary (PAWS) offer care and protection in a natural setting for elephants that are too old or otherwise unwanted by circuses and zoos. Both have web cams that let you view the elephants and their activities from anywhere you have a computer and a broadband connection.

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