A new rapid action response team is helping farmers in Karnataka, through low-cost mobile technology, to curb damage to crops and property, and livestock predation by wild animals.

Krithi Karanth, associate conservation scientist, Asia, Wildlife Conservation Society, and her team surveyed more than 2,000 villages around five wildlife reserves in Karnataka before putting the system in place.

“Our research revealed that 57% of households in the area reported crop loss to authorities, 64% reported livestock loss, and 77% reported human injury or death. However, only 31% of these households reported receipt of compensation from the government for their losses. The government is overwhelmed with daily reports of conflict incidents and unable to respond quickly. This lack of response or slowness is eroding people’s tolerance for wildlife," says Karanth.

Karanth and her team stepped in last year (June 2015) and came up with ‘Wild Seve’, a free calling and open source text-messaging portal. It is customised to allow anyone to text or call a toll free number to send conflict alerts.

“Seve" in Kannada means service or to serve.

“All text messages are re-routed to our field staff for immediate response and field assessment. The project ensures that filing, tracking and receiving of claims happens promptly and in a transparent manner with support from our field staff. This aims to bolster the state’s forest department, which is currently struggling to process thousands of claims and provide compensation to all applicants," says Karanth.

Humans and wildlife have coexisted for ages. But growing demand for land to contain an expanding human population and accommodate industrial projects have caused both space and shared resource to shrink. Incidents of wild animals raiding crops, preying on livestock and damaging property, at times even taking human lives or grievously injuring those who happen to cross paths, have become all too common.

N.C. Shankarappa is a farmer who owns 16 acres in Naganapura village in Karnataka. The farmer grows banana, onion, turmeric, tomato and marigold on his land. Shankarappa’s farm is located just 400 metres from the Bandipur National Park boundary.

“It has been very tough to grow crops and earn a living. About six acres of banana crop was raided and destroyed by wild elephants last year. I managed to save just an acre of the crop."

Shankarappa is one of the many farmers living on the edge (literally) and fighting wild animals that maraud crops and kill livestock.

N.C. Prabhuswamy and B.P. Rajkumar are farmers from the same village as Shankarappa who own agricultural land in the vicinity of Bandipur National Park.

“Almost every single night wild marauders come from the wildlife reserve to the fields and ransack crops. Whatever we try to grow — tomatoes, banana, cowpea, cotton, coconut and even teak — is destroyed by wild elephants, boars, deer and other animals. To make matters worse, there is livestock predation by tigers, leopards and dholes (wild dogs) from the sanctuary. These raids are getting more frequent and bolder," says Rajkumar.

“In the past decade, Karnataka’s two most well known national parks — Bandipur and Nagarhole — have shown an increase in human-wildlife conflict. Destruction of crops, property and livestock predation by wild animals have generated a public outcry and backlash at wildlife conservation," says Krithi Karanth, associate conservation scientist, Asia, Wildlife Conservation Society.

“There is government compensation for the farmers’ loss, but the response times are inordinately slow and there is resentment building against wildlife, parks and authorities leading to retaliation against wildlife," says Karanth.

After one year of operation, Wild Seve (completed a year on 30 June 2016) has helped 3,023 families to file claims for crop loss, property damage, livestock loss, human injury and death.

“In one year, we have responded to 3,423 calls and helped all affected people to file for compensation. Of these 2,998 calls came from Bandipur and 422 calls came from Nagarahole. These include 2,452 for crop loss, 467 for both crop loss and property damage; 342 lt for property damage, 148 for livestock predation, nine for human injury and two for human deaths. Till date, 1,000 families have received compensation. Of these 787 families are repeat cases for crop loss and 18 families are repeat cases of livestock predation," says Karanth.

Affected farmer Prabhuswamy has called the toll free number a staggering 23 times reporting damage to crops and fencing by wild elephants. Wild Seve teams have been helping Prabhuswamy to file for crop damage he has incurred since July last year. He has received 14,280 for eight cases.

Similarly, Rajkumar has been compensated for seven cases of damage to tomato and banana crops as well as coconut trees and fencing with 4,440.

“The government provides compensation to farmers whose crops, livestock or property is destroyed by wild animals but it is a long and tedious process," says Rajkumar. “Initially, I would apply for compensation. But I soon realized that the process is a long, cumbersome and frustrating one. To get compensation, we need proof of the damage. In the past I hired a local photographer, a costly affair for me, to take pictures of the affected area and sent them to the forest department. But there was no timely action and even at times when I received the compensation, it was a meagre one."

“Wild dogs have been preying on our chicken for the past few years. I have lost around 150 chickens to wild dogs. I had no choice but to ignore the attacks, as I did not know how to apply for compensation. But things have changed with the toll free number. Wild Seve team has been instrumental in bridging the gap between us and the forest department," says N. Muhammad Ibrahim, from Yediyala village.

Although Ibrahim is yet to receive any compensation, he is hopeful as Wild Seve has given him an acknowledgement receipt for the compensation application he has submitted.

Today, Roopesh from Magge village in Antharasanthe range, Nagarhole, is a contented man. Within nine months he has received 9,500 as compensation for his loss. He dialed the toll-free number last August when a cow was killed by a leopard.

“In the past three years, leopard attacks on livestock have become common. Most of the conflicts were not reported due to logistics and bureaucracy as the process of providing the required documents used to be tedious," adds Roopesh.

According to Karanth, all that was needed was a web portal, a toll free number and an SMS reporting system to create a digital case history that recorded and tracked every incident of conflict reported.

“The use of low cost (mobile) technology has proved to be extremely easy to use and effective in responding to conflict incidents and filing of claims. This effort will go a long way in helping people, increasing tolerance and reducing retaliation against species of global conservation significance (tigers, elephants, leopards)," says Karanth.

“I believe additional interventions can be planned with live data coming in can help people affected and this technology can be adapted to other regions of the world. We need to scale this to help more people and protect wildlife in multiple sites. The long term goal is to continue to respond to calls and help family’s file claims but also support them with better inventions and existing government sponsored schemes to protect their livestock and crops better. We would like to expand this to other high conflict reserves in India," she adds.

Mint is not disclosing the toll free number for untoward spam calls. The number is only for rural Karnataka.