A Night on the Watch
- A field report by Sharanya Rao
09 Oct 2019
DAY 1 -
We began the day at 7 am, leaving the traffic and noise of Bangalore behind, and heading towards the forests of Jawalagiri in Tamil Nadu. On the way, near Hunsenahalli village, we ran into a roadblock caused by a few young men who said an elephant had raided crop-fields in the village just the night before, and they were trying to get the attention of the forest department by stopping all vehicles. Luckily, we were able to get through.
There was further excitement up ahead. When we reached our destination village, Shambulingam, one of the farmers we worked with, informed us that the Gram Panchayat meeting regarding the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (mgnrega) scheme was happening as we spoke. This scheme guarantees at least 100 days of employment every year for at least one person in every household in rural India.
We walked around the village and went to his field, where we began talking about when the next rains were expected, and the elephants that would enter their fields once harvest season neared. He told us that as the rains had been late, there wasn’t enough water to cultivate kadelekai, and hence only ragi would be cultivated this year. He showed us the watchpoints from where he guarded his crops and main areas from which the elephants come through into his property.
After this, we headed to the field station where we began the process of setting up the trap-cameras for the early warning system. When we finished, we headed to the Jawalagiri forest office. After speaking to the Range Forest Officer and updating him about our progress, we set off to instal the trap-cameras with the help of a Forest Watcher.
Our first trap-camera was installed facing the hanging wire fence installed at the forest boundary and the road that abuts it. We set up the camera using a shell, a metal chain, a wire, and some tape. We tested the camera to see if it was working, and once we were satisfied, we moved on to the second site. Here the camera was set up in a similar way, facing away from the road and towards a crossing over a trench that is frequented by elephant groups.
By the time we finished setting up the cameras, it was about 6 pm and a steady rain had begun to fall. We hoped that on our way back we would be able to see some elephants. Soon enough, we saw a young tusker having a mud bath on the side of the road. He seemed to be enjoying himself quite a bit. We were joined by other villagers who found themselves facing a dilemma - should they wait and lose precious time, or continue on their path and risk getting trampled? Due to the commotion, the tusker had disappeared from view, which likely meant that he could be closer to the road, putting the villagers in even greater danger should he decide to charge. After waiting for a couple of minutes, the villages decided to proceed on their way. As we did not see the elephant return, we too headed back to the forest department office.
After we’d eaten dinner, we headed out around 9 pm with the forest officers who patrol the boundary of the forest. We hoped that we would be able to see the elephants, but we were also there to test the trap-cameras.
The Forest Guard who we had accompanied, seemed intent on showing us the other animals on the way, namely gaur, deer, and wild pig - we did see a deer or two, but perhaps not as much as he was hoping.
The day began at 5:59 am, with fresh sunlight pouring into the Gypsy. We awoke and first checked the cameras. The first camera seemed to be working fine. A few pictures of jeeps and other vehicles had been captured, but not elephants. We adjusted the settings and moved to the next site.
The second camera seemed to be suffering due to a connectivity issue and no pictures had come through since installation. At this point, we decided to take it down and find and fix the problem. We inserted the SD card into another camera and found that it had taken a few pictures, implying that the problem was in the transmission of these pictures to the phone. Nishant finally suggested that Nicole climb atop the jeep and see if it were possible to receive anything there. Miraculously, it worked perfectly and a stream of pictures began coming in. Satisfied with the setup, we adjusted the settings once more, and then headed to Anand Reddy’s farm, one of the farmers we work with in this area.
The next step in the project was to set up a fence around a group of farmer’s properties to deter elephants from entering their fields during harvest season. To do this we first had to map the boundary of these plots to determine the length of the fence. Through this, we found out that the total perimeter of the fence would be approximately 1km.
We had also initially planned to set up the third camera at Anand Reddy’s farm, but he said there was no site he could think of where it would be immediately useful to have the camera up. This was because the elephants had stopped using that particular stretch to cross the forest boundary since the hanging wire fence had been set up. Accepting this, we decided to conclude our fieldwork, and head back to the city.
Over the next day, some pictures of elephants were transmitted from the second camera. However, there were no text messages sent out, and after that. Later, pictures stopped coming in altogether. The next step would be to find out what is the issue with the camera was (eg. whether it’s with taking/ transmitting the pictures, network issues, something else), and fix it before heading back to the site.
Anand Reddy will continue to observe the movement of elephants and will have a new site for the third camera ready for us soon, and then we can set that up as well.