The text message from the elephant flashed across Richard Lesowapir's screen: Kimani was heading for neighboring farms.
The huge bull elephant had a history of raiding villagers' crops during the harvest, sometimes wiping out months of income at a time. But this time a mobile phone card inserted in his collar sent a text message to rangers. Lesowapir, an armed guard and a driver arrived in a jeep bristling with spotlights to frighten Kimani back into the Ol Pejeta conservancy.
Kenya is the first country to try elephant texting as a way to protect both a growing human population and the wild animals that now have less room to roam. Elephants are ranked as “near threatened” in the Red List, an index of vulnerable species published by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
The race to save Kimani began two years ago. The Kenya Wildlife Service had already reluctantly shot five elephants from the conservancy that refused to stop crop-raiding, and Kimani was the last of the regular raiders. The Save the Elephants group wanted to see if he could break the habit.
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So they placed a mobile phone SIM card in Kimani's collar, then set up a virtual “geofence” using a global positioning system that mirrored the conservatory's boundaries. Whenever Kimani approaches the virtual fence, his collar texts rangers.
They have intercepted Kimani 15 times since the project began. Once almost a nightly raider, he last went near a farmer's field four months ago. It's a huge relief to the farmers who rely on their crops for food and cash for school fees.
Iain Douglas-Hamilton, founder of Save the Elephants, said the project is still in its infancy — only two geofences have been set up in Kenya — and it has its problems.
Collar batteries wear out every few years. Sometimes communities think placing a collar on an elephant implies ownership and responsibility for the havoc it causes. And it's expensive work — Ol Pejeta has five full-time staff and a standby vehicle to respond.
But the experiment with Kimani has been a success, and last month a geofence was set up in another part of the country for an elephant known as Mountain Bull. Moses Litoroh, the coordinator of Kenya Wildlife Service's elephant program, hopes the project might help resolve some of the 1,300 complaints the service receives every year over crop raiding.