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Thursday, May 7, 2015

Dr Anandakumar wins Whitley Award ~ Green Oscar - elephants at Valparai !

Valparai is  famous  hill station in the Coimbatore district of Tamil Nadu.  It is located 3,500 feet above sea level on the Anaimalai Hills range of the Western Ghats, at a distance of 100 km from Coimbatore and 65 km from Pollachi. There are 40 hairpin bends on the way up to Valparai from Azhiyar.  On the Valparai plateau people live in fear of unexpected encounters with giants in the dark. As dusk settles, tea and coffee pickers collect rations from the townships run by the corporations that own the plantations and drift back towards their colonies. Buses drop workers on the roads and they make the precarious walk through the dark to their homes.  We are reading about this Award, known as ‘Green Oscar’ not only because 2 Indians have become the recipients – also for the cause for which it stands ! ~and this post is specific on Dr Anandakumar

The Whitley Fund for Nature (WFN) is a UK registered charity offering awards and grants to outstanding nature conservationists around the world.  The Whitley Awards are given  annually by the Whitley Fund for Nature (WFN) to recognise and celebrate effective national and regional conservation leaders across the globe. The awards are worth £30,000 (2007) and are now amongst the most high profile of conservation prizes - they have been called the "Green Oscars". The awards particularly seek to recognise contributions to conservation made from outside the developed world, and to bring to international attention the work of deserving individuals committed to precipitating long-lasting conservation benefits on the ground.

The Whitley Awards were established in 1994 by Edward Whitley, when a single award of £15,000 was made. In 2007 eight awards were made, together with several runner-up and associate awards.  Of the Whitley Award winners selected each year, one recipient goes on to win the prestigious Whitley Gold Award, worth an additional £30,000. The Whitley Awards Ceremony, hosted by the patron of WFN, The Princess Royal, is held annually at the Royal Geographical Society, usually in the Spring.

It is not new and for ages, people having been living in fear at Valparai.  On the Valparai, high in India’s Western Ghats, tea and coffee companies have flattened 221 sq km of prime rainforest for their plantations. The cleared land is now home to 70,000 workers, who live surrounded on all sides by the rugged, deeply forested Anamalai (Tamil for ‘elephant hills’).  “They are scared. If I am there I am really scared,” said conservationist Dr Ananda Kumar, who created an SMS warning system to help workers live safely among elephants.  Recently, his work won a £35,000 Whitley Award, dubbed a ‘Green Oscar’.

~ and at Valparai as also in many other elephant corridors – there have been accidental encounters with the mammoth.  Quite natural considering the fact that man has encroached their living area and in some places cut through its transit paths.  There have been stray incidents of pachyderms harming people too – elephant is a huge animal, dark skinned looking like a rock and will be standing very still when they notice people.”  Still the  2,000 odd  elephants inhabiting the hills have no understanding of the multinationals’claim to the plateau. 

If they are startled or feel threatened, elephants can be very dangerous. In the small community of Valparai, 41 people have been killed since 1994. The problem, said Kumar, was that people simply did not realise elephants were nearby. “Out of 41 deaths, 36 people did not know there were elephants. If these people had known about the elephants’ location, all these people would have been alive,” Kumar told the Guardian. “Human habitations will also get hit by elephants. They will break from the outside, towards the kitchen. Obviously they are looking for [food]. Suddenly the people will hear a sound in the middle of the night at the kitchen side. It’s a very traumatic experience.”

“Elephants are strongly related to their ranges, this is scientifically established. It’s a part of their home, which is lost to plantations because of historical exploitation,” said Kumar, who has spent a decade working on a system of text messages, television alerts and warning lights that keep track of elephants as the move through the plantations.  A team of trackers, called the conflict response team, watches over elephants as they pass through the plateau, they are assisted by Tamil Nadu forestry department workers and local informants, who act as extra scouts for the programme. Information is relayed via a hotline, manned by Kumar’s appropriately-named colleague Ganesh. The hotline receives over 1,000 calls each year, many of them not seeking information about elephant locations but providing word of elephant sightings to their neighbours.  When an elephant is spotted, alerts are sent via text message to all those who reside within a few kilometres of an elephant’s location. At 5pm each night, local TV stations broadcast the locations of all elephants on the plateau. The warnings also go out to volunteer wardens in each colony, who operate red warning beacons that light up via text message. This allows people to plan their trips and let visiting friends know to beware.

“The local communities have adopted this. Government has responded positively. It is a collective effort that is actually making it a win-win situation, both for elephants and for people,” said Kumar. Even incidents of elephants damaging property have reduced by half as the people embraced a philosophy of living with elephants and made food stores more secure.  The programme has  won the Whitley award for its novel and pragmatic approach to the elephant-human conflict, which kills 400 people and more than 100 elephants across India every year.   In a decade, Kumar’s warning system has cut the rate of deaths from three per year to just one. It is seen as an exemplar in the efforts to tackle the India-wide conflict between elephants and humans.

Kumar said the challenge was not removing dangerous elephants but making habitat safe for both elephants and humans. He believes the perception of the deranged rogue elephant that has pervaded much the elephant conflict debate in India had been thoroughly debunked by science and the results of his programme. By empowering the local community with location specific information, Ananda Kumar and his team, including Ganesh Raghunathan, have turned zones of conflict into co-existence.  As a next step, Mr. Kumar and his team is in the process of collecting data and understanding the human-elephant relationship scientifically in Sathyamangalam region to reduce crop damage.

With regards – S. Sampathkumar
6th May 2015

Photos and news courtesy : and

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