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Villagers get smartphone elephant alerts

By Li Yingqing in Kunming and Yang Wanli in Beijing | China Daily | Updated: 2017-12-16 07:26

A wild elephant attacks a bus in the Xishuangbanna Dai autonomous prefecture of Yunnan province in this video screen capture from Dec 9. CHINA DAILY

In Basan village, where nearly all of the 2,200 residents have smartphones, the mobile devices now provide updates on activities of nearby wild elephants - not just as reminders for wildlife observers, but as a safety alert.

The village, in the Xishuangbanna Dai autonomous prefecture in Southwest China's Yunnan province, has witnessed frequent visits by wild elephants in recent years, sometimes accompanied by safety threats.

"An elephant alert alliance has been formed voluntarily in the village," said local resident Huang Zhaowu. "Anyone who notices a wild elephant nearby will spread the alert on social media or share it on (WeChat) Moments," he said.

Yunnan is China's only habitat of wild Asian elephants, and the wild elephant population has soared there from 170 in the 1970s to about 300 now, thanks to protection efforts.

The elephants' population has grown by two to three annually in recent years, according to Chen Mingyong, a life sciences professor at Yunnan University.

Chen said the elephant habitat area in the prefecture expanded from seven counties last year to nine this year.

The growing number of wild elephants has resulted in more conflicts between local people and elephants. Last week, an adult elephant smashed the front window of a bus and pushed a car off the road. No injuries were reported.

To solve the problem, police and forestry workers are using drones to monitor the activities of a wild elephant that has attacked several vehicles in Menghai county.

Drones that have been used to monitor forest fires were introduced to the wild elephant alert system in June last year, according to Chang Zongbo, media official of the Xishuangbanna Forestry Public Security Office.

He said drones are being used 24 hours a day for real-time monitoring of all 18 elephants in the county. Sections of road will be cordoned off if elephants are found there. The flight duration of the drones is 20 minutes, which makes it possible to cover a town.

The elephant alert system is still mainly conducted by the bureau's forestry station observers in each county, with drones playing the role of assistant, Chang said.

In the Mengwang Forestry Station, for example, eight watchers follow wild elephant tracks 24 hours a day, usually keeping a distance of at least 1 kilometer away from an elephant.

Watchers will carry the drone, and the information collected will be released through the station's social media account or local media each week. If the elephants get close to villages, alerts will be sent to the villagers.

Chen, who has studied Asian elephants for years, attributed some incidents, such as elephants attacking people, to the migration season.

"Wild elephants usually migrate between November and April, when food is scarce. They chase down food, wander around and don't have a home," he said.

A lack of food is the root of some conflicts, according to Chen.

He said the amount of the elephants' favorite food - plume grass - has dropped because of the expansion of some invasive plants.

In addition, the expanding group of wild elephants has worsened the problem, which "forced the elephants to walk to a wider area looking for things to eat", he said.

"People should also avoid provoking the elephants, which may be aggressive if they are scared," he added.

According to the Xishuangbanna Forestry Bureau, 153,000 cases involving conflicts between wild animals and local people were recorded from 1991 to 2010. Most involved wild elephants. In these conflicts, 33 people died and 165 were injured, with economic loss of 270 million yuan ($40.9 million).

In July, a "canteen" for wildlife was expanded in Xishuangbanna to reduce friction between villagers and wild elephants that eat crops due to the food shortage.

Contact the writers at yangwanli@chinadaily.com.cn

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