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Originally published Sunday, October 12, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Elephants send text messages

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.

The Associated Press

OL PEJETA, Kenya — The text message from the elephant flashed across Richard Lesowapir's screen: Kimani was heading for neighboring farms.

The huge bull elephant had a long history of raiding villagers' crops during the harvest, sometimes wiping out six months of income at a time. But this time a cellphone card inserted in his collar sent rangers a text message.

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.

The Kenya Wildlife Service had already reluctantly shot five elephants from the conservancy who 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.

So they placed a cellphone 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 small farmers who rely on their crops for food and cash for school fees. Once an elephant stuck its trunk through a window into a room where 31-year-old Basila Mwasu's baby daughter was sleeping and the family had stored some corn. Mwasu beat it back with a burning stick. Another time, an elephant killed a neighbor defending his crop.

"We had to go into town to tell the game [wardens] to chase the elephants away or we're going to kill them all," Mwasu remembered. But the elephants kept coming back.

Iain Douglas-Hamilton, founder of Save the Elephants, said the project is still in its infancy 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 to respond when a message flashes across a ranger's screen.

But the experiment with Kimani has been a success, and last month another geofence was set up in another part of the country. 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.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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