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  • Habeeba Fathima

Sagavazhalvu: A novel intranet community media network to enable coexistence in the Nilgiris

Based on five months of field work done by our Biodiversity programme, Keystone presents a preliminary case study of attempts to employ an intranet radio to monitor and mitigate human-wildlife conflict in the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve.

Kotagiri is a small town in the Nilgiris district of Tamil Nadu where people share their homes and spaces with wildlife – the mighty gaur, the opportunistic sloth bear, and the lithe leopard, amidst abundant birdlife. Herds of gaur can be found strolling through bustling streets and marketplaces, while sloth bears slink into village temples to feast on offerings and prasadam. Leopards are known to pick up a dog or two (both strays and pets) every other week! While both people and wildlife are constantly learning to navigate these encounters, such situations leave either humans, animals or both with grave injuries and even death.

Under the umbrella of a larger project to mitigate negative human-wildlife interactions in Kotagiri by our team, we idealised the intranet Wi-Fi mesh system as a smaller experiment. We installed this system in two villages in consultation with Janastu, a non-profit organisation that builds decentralised community-owned Wi-Fi mesh networks to provide last mile internet connectivity to remote areas. This began as an experiment to create an early warning system for the village while also achieving the important task of sharing information about movement of animals within the town to reduce the uncontrollable spread of ‘sensational’ news.

Raising awareness about Sagavazhalvu

Accessing the intranet radio

While working on the ground, we learned that mobilising the community was tremendously difficult in a heterogeneous environment such as Kotagiri, where people harbour different (often polarising) religious beliefs and political orientations. Our experiment opened up new avenues when we realised we could also use this tool to build upon wildlife ecology and conservation awareness and education among the communities.

Sagavazhalvu is a Tamil word which means to coexist. We chose this name with a vision that this network would build coexistence between humans and animals through awareness and circulation of early information about the presence of a wild animal.

This system works through the setup of a think centre (main device) installed at the centre of the village which connects to routers placed along the perimeter of the village to create a mesh of signal. One can imagine this system to be like an OTT platform like Netflix or Hotstar on a smartphone. One can connect to the intranet mesh by connecting to the Wi-Fi mesh. Once connected, they can log into the server on a Chrome browser, and ‘Sagavazhalvu’ is open. You get options to listen to the radio or watch documentary videos.

An image of the main system

To also encourage community members to use and familiarise themselves with the system, we introduced applications into the interface, like a local storage option. The programs are focused on wildlife conservation and village natural history. Children and adults have both participated in creating content for the system in the form of poems, stories and songs. This has become a tool for us to relay important information about wildlife.

The intranet system is paving the way for our next goal – to train community youth to observe animal movements and post messages of warning on the main page of the server. This way, anyone logged in to the server would get a notification about the presence of the animals around them. We are hoping that this will reduce negative interactions in the villages.

We are yet to estimate the impact of our intervention and we’re studying the metrics. A major challenge, interestingly, has been activating the intranet radio in a high network area because this system does not provide internet services and people in high network areas are used to internet connectivity. We have put the main server in a community hall which is a central point in the village and is frequented by a lot of people, especially youngsters. This has sparked curiosity among them and they are interested in learning how to upload and access the server. In the future we see these youth groups becoming ambassadors for this network and taking it forward as a community media network.

By Habeeba Fathima (Biodiversity Conservation at Keystone Foundation); cover image by Saipreeth Saidas Thattari.

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