Trialing Camera Traps 

We’re partnering with Bring The Elephant Home in Thailand to trial the potential of alternative crops to support farmers living with elephants. We’re excited to bring the first news from the field, by Brooke Friswold, who is a PhD student at King Mongkut University of Technology Thonburi!


by Brooke Friswold

The team in Thailand has been busy over the last two months – especially while director and founder of Bring the Elephant Home (BTEH) Antoinette van de Water has been in country! With the start of data collection for a subset of five BTEH rented lemongrass plots and ten community-owned pineapple plots on the horizon, equipment and methodology trialing has begun. Data collection via camera trapping is set to begin in mid-May to record baseline elephant behavior in control and experimental plots for the HECTAARE project and for Brooke Friswold’s PhD research with King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi (KMUTT) in partnership with BTEH and HECTAARE. 

The first camera trap was placed behind BTEH project manager David Owen’s house who lives on the border of the national park and the agricultural area of the village. David regularly sees elephants leave the national park at night and walk through a pathway behind their house to enter the agricultural fields.

On the first night of camera trialing we placed the camera trap (Bushnell L20 Low Glow Trail Cameras) as a means to trial the camera trap for various evaluations with the intention of leaving it there long term once data collection starts. To test how sensitive the camera traps were, metered transect tape was laid up to 100 feet from the camera with the intention of generating movement at ten foot intervals to see what triggered the camera. We also wanted to test the camera’s range of view and how well it performed in the dark. The camera was placed in a protective steel box to keep it safe from weathering and human tampering and fastened it to a tree with cables. In the future after collecting more camera trap footage and trials, we will continue to adjust height (likely between 1.5m to 3m for camera trapping elephants), angle, settings etc.  

The camera traps and transect tape were erected around dusk and the group was going to head back to David’s house (which can be seen close by in the distance) for dinner and return to the tree to start trialing the camera traps once dark. Before leaving it was briefly discussed if the camera trap should be turned on but decided against it as it would still be typically too early for the elephants to come out (they like to come out well after 10pm). David also mentioned that they hadn’t seen the elephants in quite some time.

The group are about to head to the camera trap following dinner and sunset, when we hear an elephant bellowing loudly from the edge of the national park just near the camera trap. The elephants in this area have been known to let out a loud roar or shriek before exiting the national park. The head of a juvenile bull is soon seen sticking out from the foliage of the national park edge and emerging along the pathway right in front of our camera trap! We all watch excitedly as the elephant walks and expresses a variety of behaviors directly in front of the camera trap. A nearby pineapple farmer begins throwing firecrackers at the elephant, a common tactic used by local farmers and park rangers to scare the elephants back into the national park. 

When elephants emerge from the national park the surrounding farming areas erupt into firecrackers, shouts, spotlights, and rangers zooming around on motorcycles – making it feel slightly like a war zone at times with the remnants of the firecrackers seen the next day. The planting of alternative crops that are less palatable to elephants, such as BTEH’s Tom Yum project; has the potential to reduce the stress that is evident in both human and elephant entities during these nightly confrontations. It is one of the multiple tactics that BTEH is utilizing in this area to attempt to increase human elephant coexistence. 

What a view of the action!

Using our spotlight and voices we attempt to encourage the elephant to return to the forest, however he ignores all deterrents and heads further from the forest in a hurried and frantic manner. As the excitement settles down it dawns on us…the camera trap was not on. Had it been on we would have captured behavioral data within a half hour of putting up our camera trap! 

Our first attempt at trialing camera traps came with a valuable lesson learned: always turn the camera trap on. Always.


Related Posts

Human-Elephant Conflict: Opportunities for coexistence

As the world grows more crowded, spaces inhabited by wildlife and humans tend to overlap resulting in human-wildlife conflict (HWC). While peaceful coexistence is possible, negative encounters due to various factors continue to be a challenge in conservation. Human expansion into wildlife habitat is especially problematic for Asian elephants that need a large area for their ecological needs[1]. As a result, these animals break into human settlements and cause significant losses to the community. 

Asian elephants are found to impose the highest damages with a probability of 35.1%.[4] Photo by Lokesh Kaushik on Unsplash

Home to large numbers of Asian elephants, India’s rural population carries the daily risk of human-elephant conflict (HEC) especially in places where resources are nature-based. The practice of monoculture (planting only one type of crop in a given area), in regions like Karnataka is found to increase the frequency of HEC which can have a major negative impact on local sentiments and behavior towards conservation[2,3]. In relation to this, the country is reported to incur an estimated one million hectares of destroyed crops and 10,000 to 15,000 damaged properties yearly[4]. While these losses are often used as the basis for calculating economic impacts, there exists an irreversible casualty usually unaccounted for: human life. 

In India, the country with the largest number of Asian elephants, HEC kills 500 humans and 100 elephants every year[5]. This retaliatory elephant killing is a serious threat in conservation and is a driving factor to the decline in population[3]. A study by Gulati et al. (2019) encompassing 5000 households in the states of Karnataka, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Maharashtra examined damages to property and human casualties as a result of HWC[4].  Among the animal species (pig, nilgai, elephant, leopard, tiger, wolf and others) evaluated in the study, the damages caused by elephants amounted to a fifth of a farmer’s yearly crop income. Furthermore, these damages were 600 to 900 times more than that of a farmer experiencing losses from other herbivores, namely the pig and nilgai. The study’s authors therefore concluded that the elephant brought about more casualties than other species included in the study. In addition, human death only occurred in two reserves out of five, namely Nagarahole and Bandipur, but the calculated cost from the risk of injury or death from HEC already amounted to $42,236. While the Indian government provides monetary compensation for human injury and death, this only amounts to an average of $3,234 for mortality and $103 for injuries across the four states.

Damages from Asian elephants are 600 to 900 times more than that of other herbivores namely the pig and nilgai.[4] Photo by Sauhrab Mishra on Unsplash.

The current status of HEC in India tells us that much remains to be done. At present,  negative incidents seem inevitable due to the increasing number of settlements near protected areas. A long-term goal of conservationists is to enable coexistence between humans and elephants. To aid this effort, the United Nations Environment Programme and World Wildlife Fund have published The Six Elements of HWC Management[3]

  • Understanding the conflict : Measures such as research on hotspot mapping and community attitudes to understand the context for conflict.
  • Mitigation: Lessening the aftereffects of HWC through compensation, alternative livelihoods, employment etc.
  • Response: Tackling ongoing HWC through organized teams, mechanisms, and standard operating procedures. 
  • Prevention: Preventing the occurrence of HWC through devices such as fences, detection tools, warning signals etc.
  • Policy: Involvement of government and authorities by creating management measures and mechanisms. 
  • Monitoring: Assessing the efficiency of HWC interventions through acts like data collection. 

At the time of writing, Karnataka has initiated an early warning system signal through text messages, online messaging applications, and sign boards which significantly reduced deaths and injuries a year into its launch in 2018[6]. In 2020 the government of India has also launched Surakhsya[7], a compendium on best practices of HEC management, with a positive outlook towards supporting efforts to minimize conflict and reaffirm the protection of elephants by mobilizing resources supported by the government.

References:

1Neupane, D., Kwon, Y., Risch, T. S., Williams, A. C., & Johnson, R. L. (2019). Habitat use by Asian elephants: Context matters. Global Ecology and Conservation, 17, e00570. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gecco.2019.e00570

2Ramanan, SS. (2019, February 14). Landscape-level approach necessary to address human-elephant conflicts. DownToEarth. https://www.downtoearth.org.in/news/wildlife-biodiversity/landscape-level-approach-necessary-to-address-human-elephant-conflicts-63242

3United Nations Environment Programme & World Wildlife Fund. (2021, July 8). A Future for All: The Need for Human-Wildlife Coexistence. https://www.unep.org/resources/report/future-all-need-human-wildlife-coexistence

4Gulati, S., Karanth, K. K., Le, N. A., & Noack, F. (2021). Human casualties are the dominant cost of human–wildlife conflict in India. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 118(8), e1921338118. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1921338118

5Nandi, J. (2020, August 10). At least 500 persons are killed in human-elephant conflict every year: Environment min data. Hindustan Times. https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/at-least-500-persons-are-killed-in-human-elephant-conflict-every-year-environment-min-data/story-MbLQNN5Snm22W6gC32Of0I.html

6Niyogi, DG. (2019, February 21). Early elephant warning systems help, but are short-term measures: Experts. DownToEarth. https://www.downtoearth.org.in/news/wildlife-biodiversity/early-elephant-warning-systems-help-but-are-short-term-measures-experts-63311

7Fernandes, B. (2020, August 12). World Elephant Day: Union Min Prakash Javadekar launches portal on human-elephant conflict. Republic World. https://www.republicworld.com/india-news/general-news/union-min-prakash-javadekar-launches-human-elephant-conflict-portal.html