A beacon of hope for HEC

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They start flashing with the first signs of darkness and keep on blinking throughout the night. As the sun rises they stop blinking, only to start flashing once again as the sun sets and the sky is filled with darkness.

These are not vesak lights or blinking lights that are used for celebrating special events but are ordinary led bulbs that are being used for a specific purpose. As the sun sets and darkness takes over the once bright blue sky out – come these majestic creatures.

Some come in herds and others one at a time. Their silent footsteps are not heard by the farmers during this time of the night. The elephants slowly make their way through the jungle area in search of food. But they are suddenly taken by surprise when they see these flashing lights, lights they haven’t seen before and lights in an area that is familiar to them.

In most cases the elephants turn back when they see these unusual and mysterious objects flashing in the night. But some elephants are smarter and intelligent than the others. They will try anything to get to their source of food irrespective of what obstacles stand in their way.

Light repel system

Speaking to Ceylon Today President of the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society (WNPS) Jehan Canagaretna said this light repel system is an invention by an Army officer – Brigadier Sugath Udayasena – who had tested it out at the Maduru Oya National Park when he was serving there.

“He had approached Government officials with this invention but they had not taken it too seriously. Then at one of our lectures on elephant conflicts at the BMICH he approached me and said he had this system that was successful at army camps and asked if I would like to have a discussion with him,” Canagaretna explained.

With his curiosity piqued Canagaretna had an initial discussion with the Brigadier and that resulted in them going and checking out a location where this system was installed at an army camp. “I saw the location and thought why don’t we also install one and see. With the Army Brigadier’s help we decided to do a few locations. In 2019 we started installing them in areas bordering national parks and other places. But sadly Brigadier Udayasena died from COVID-19 last year. He was very passionate about elephants,” Canagaretna said.

The first couple of light systems were installed in the Galgamuwa area in July 2019, he said, and basically how the system works is a bunch of lights strung together across a farmer’s property five meters apart at a height of about nine and a half to ten feet, which is about the height that an elephant would feed.

Each pole has five bulbs

“For a square acre there are approximately 45 lights. Each pole has five white led bulbs flashing on and off throughout the night. We haven’t done a sensor system yet so the bulbs are flashing all night. The lights are switched on at dusk around 6 p.m. and shut off at dawn. This is the first time a deterrent for the human-elephant conflict (HEC) or a biological mitigating system for elephants raiding crops that has been found,” Canagaretna explained.

He said all the other things they are testing in the country at the moment are physical barriers/physical mitigated methods. “It can be elephant fences, trenches, sounds, throwing fire cracker; all of which are physical mitigating methods. Elephants’ eyesight is very poor and they get temporarily blinded. We want to install this system in about 21 locations focusing on key districts that have HEC. We have presently installed them in Mahiyangana, Ampara, Udawalawe, Hambantota District, Balagiriya, Vilachchiya, Hetawewa, and in the Anuradhapura and the Kurunegala districts among others. Some of the lengths can vary from one square acre to two to three kilometres as well,” Canagaretna explained.

He added that they have a Project Coordinator and that person visits the location not every week but often enough. “We also have a phone call that goes out twice a week to the owner of the house requesting specific questions. We ask the same questions all the time. The questions; are the lights working? Did the elephant or elephants come to the light fence? Did they go through the fence while the lights were working? If they did come through what was the damage, in terms of crop damage? Was it a single elephant or a couple of elephants? Did the elephant/elephants come and go to another property that didn’t have the light system which is close by?” Canagaretna said.

A control site

We have what we call a control site, he said, but those people don’t know that this is a control site. “There are interesting stories where in some instances elephants have come along the river, so the light doesn’t hit their eyesight. In one instance the elephant has taken a teak leaf in his trunk and tried to cover his eye and come through the light fence. We have had failure also. The biggest battle we have is the farmers who get this system that we are experimenting, don’t look after it once the crop is over. After the cultivation is over the fence has to be looked after because there are peacocks and monkeys who pull the wires,” Canagaretna explained.

He goes on to say that the five bulbs are fitted in to a plastic shower head on a PVC pipe and one wire goes from one post to the other post with a five meter gap. “This is a very crude method of making it. From the data that we have collected we have about an 80 per cent efficacy that is working. As long as the light system is working it seems to be doing some parts of its job. But there is no single mitigating method that will keep an elephant away, because it is in a desperate situation when it comes without having any food,” Canagaretna said.

Canagaretna is of the opinion that when elephants see the food on the other side they will try everything possible to get there. “It will be great if we can prove scientifically,” Canagaretna said. To do so they need to release a scientific paper after researching data collected over four years but as of now, they only have data of two and a half years. He also said that WNPS is trying to get the attention of the Government to the project since it is a much cheaper option than the electric fence but implementing the light repel system all over the country is something they alone cannot do since they lack funds.

Tested in Botswana

So the Government has a choice, he says, but we can’t give it to the Government until we have done a scientific paper or a white paper as we call it and our ultimate goal is that. “It has been tested in Botswana and Elephant Without Borders have also tried this and had fairly good success. There are one or two other places where I have seen these lights. There are coloured lights also. In Hambantota I saw a person using coloured lights. But I have not been able to meet the person and ask him where he got the idea, if the bulbs are working or is it successful,” Canagaretna said.

He also mentioned an old farming couple around 65 years old who have done a fantastic job to ensuring that the lights are working every day. “They maintain it and ensure that the wires are not damaged. Whether they have a crop or not they continue to check the wires and ensure they are not damaged by monkeys and peacocks or anything else. If the lights are not working they report to us and say the lights are not working. This is a very good example on the way it should be done,” Canagaretna explained.

He noted that if the farmers don’t maintain it and the system does not work, the elephants will come through. “For a square acre and the 45 bulbs the electricity bill may go up by Rs 200 per month. I’m not talking about the present increase but before that. We are evolving the system to make it more efficient. We had a problem during the power cuts. Now we have a battery system where it charges while the electricity is there and when the lights go off the bulbs continue to work through the battery. The elephants may in time get used to this system,” Canagaretna said.

Sensor light system

He said they are also looking at the sensor light system which would be suitable deterrent system for any other big animal such as water buffalo. “We spent Rs 4.5 – 5 million approximately for those 21 locations. We have funding from different individuals and organisations. The system is managed by the Human Elephant Sub Committee of the WNPS. This is definitely a success story. We are trying to use solar but then the cost will go up. Some farmers say don’t give them solar because the two legged thieves will steal them,” Canagaretna explained.

Some farmers say this system has kept the wild boar away from their crops, he said. “That is possible because wild boar also don’t like light. But there is no scientific evidence to it,” Canagaretna explained. 

All methods used for the HEC mitigation up to now have failed at some time. But these as Canagaretna says are physical barriers or physical mitigated methods. We hope that this biological mitigating system that is been used for the first time, will be more successful than the ones presently in use. 

By Risidra Mendis