As with every conflict, the man-elephant face-off has two sides. The catastrophic toll on elephants, however, often goes unreported…

“When there are elephants around, it does something to me” the man said quietly. We were visiting his hamlet in a tea garden near Siliguri, north Bengal, to investigate a recent incident of ‘shop lifting' and destruction by a tusker locally known as Belcha. The villagers said that he had destroyed three shops and a granary that year. Cookie jars, ubiquitous accessories in any village shop, still lay broken where they had fallen amongst the debris. “What did he want from the shop?” I wondered out loud. “Salt and biscuits,” was the erstwhile shopkeeper's tired answer.

At a nearby hamlet, an elephant had killed a man 10 days ago. Elephants had raided the family's kitchen garden on two consecutive nights, and completely destroyed the crop of lentil and tapioca. On the third night, when the family heard the unmistakable sounds of an elephant in their backyard, they fled their rickety shack. Unfortunately, the lone elephant was not in the backyard as they had thought but stood on the path blocking their exit. While the mother and three children escaped, the elephant grabbed the father and hurled him into a hedge. They could not approach to see if he needed medical help for fear of their own lives as the elephant didn't budge from the spot until dawn. By then it was too late. As the widow stood mute through our conversation with her neighbours, the awareness of her predicament hit me squarely. A Panchayat elder said that she would get Rs. 50,000 ex-gratia payment from the Forest Department whereas the official notification declares that she should be given Rs. 100,000. With three children to support, the burden of providing for her family rested solely on her fragile malnourished shoulders.

Sound reasons

Why do elephants leave their forest refuge and trouble their human neighbours? Are poor villagers the only affected party in this battle of wits and might? As in any story, there are two sides. While the human victims are the vocal, dramatic face of this conflict, the toll on elephants is invisible but just as catastrophic.

According to Project Elephant, the Ministry of Environment and Forests' elephant-affairs body, only 22 per cent of elephant territory in India is given the highest degree of protection as a National Park or Sanctuary; the rest falls under an assortment of lax regimes such as reserve, revenue and private forests. In other words, the bulk of elephant territory lies in areas that are exploited and degraded by humans. The few isolated studies that quantify the loss of elephant-used forests indicate that they are being destroyed literally right beneath the pachyderms' feet. In one extreme case, Assam has lost 65 per cent of choice elephant habitat since 1972. Elephant forests are also sliced and severed by highways, dam projects and railroads. Elephants live to be 50 years old, so what do they do when they lose their homes? They do not just go away to other forested areas, instead they stick it out and try to adjust. What to eat in which area at what time of the year is learnt by rote from the time an elephant is a mere calf following in its mother's and aunts' footsteps. Their destiny is intrinsically coupled to their habitat. That is why despite the risk to their lives, they insist on crossing highways and railway tracks and even swim across reservoirs to use their home range.

In the tea gardens of Sonitpur, a herd of six elephants has virtually no forests within what it calls home. This herd is not a typical family group that retires shyly by day, for there is nowhere to hide, to get away from the constant heckling and harassment. They are now fighting for their very survival with their backs pressed together and are as aggressive as bulls. In a bid to gain political mileage, Bodo tribals were encouraged to fell and settle in the reserve forests of Sonai-Rupai, Charduar, Balipara, Nowduar, Biswanath and Behali and now both the elephants and people of the area are paying the price.

Vanishing habitat

In other states such as Jharkhand and Orissa, mining and forest fires leave behind a scorched earth incapable of supporting elephants. Across elephant habitats, widespread grazing by domestic cattle encourages inedible weeds to proliferate, suppresses the growth of grass and fodder plants, and exposes the soil. Firewood and bamboo collection puts humans in direct competition with elephants. These are not dramatic events but collectively it is nothing short of plundering the elephants' food supply. When the inflation rate spiked recently and the cost of food escalated to unheard of heights, sociologists predicted food riots. If that is expected behaviour of civilized humans, is it any wonder that elephants are turning to crops and raiding food stores to survive?

Elephants spend summer in one part of the forest and go to another for the winter. They are faithful to their home range whose extent is determined by the quality of the forest and where forage and water are located. Whatever the extent of the range, elephants need access to all of it to survive. If parts of their home are blocked by human settlements, they will use the cover of darkness to walk through crops, and villages. Forsaking that inaccessible part of their home is usually not an option and conflict becomes routine along these passageways.

Despite adjusting, when making a living in their home range is no longer possible, elephants expand their range by seeking new pastures. For example, some elephants from Dandeli Wildlife Sanctuary in Karnataka have been visiting the neighbouring states of Maharashtra and Goa since 2002, reportedly because of the Kali hydroelectric project. Wherever there is high intensity conflict with elephants, habitat loss is the central theme. Much like Aladdin's genie, once the elephants are out of the forests, it is almost impossible to put them back inside. That is why we would do well to remember that it is easier to protect their habitat than to create it.

However, habitat loss is not the only reason for conflict. All along the human-elephant interface conflict inevitably rumbles at low intensity. An average adult elephant spends about 18 hours a day in the forest finding about 250 kg of food. Just beyond the periphery of the forests, humans grow crops that have been selectively bred for greater nutrition, and lesser toxins. Besides where there is no surface water, we plumb the depths with bore wells to cultivate sweet juicy sugarcane and bananas even when all else is dry in the forest. It would take an extraordinarily self-disciplined elephant to turn its trunk up at these treats growing right on the doorstep. Yet research shows that amazingly there are indeed some elephants with ample opportunity to raid crops, which do not give in to temptation and strictly maintain their diet of wild forage.

Escalating conflict

As if ransacking the elephants' home isn't enough, humans kill bull elephants for their tusks. Herds don't escape the wrath of farmers either. Each region has its preferred choice arsenal to kill and maim elephants. Stressed elephants may avoid those areas of their home range where they perceive danger and may congregate to find safety in numbers. The habitat that could sustain a smaller herd of elephants may take a beating from such large herds. Eventually the forest becomes so degraded that it cannot sustain the same animals any longer. This drives these elephants to the closest available food: crops. And the vicious cycle of violence continues.

It is commonly suggested that conflict is a result of growing elephant numbers. But in Assam, although the elephant population is decreasing, the conflict graph doesn't show a corresponding downward trend. The Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve has one of the largest elephant populations and yet conflict is generally considered to be low. There is no evidence to tie elephant numbers to conflict but there is plenty to show that high and growing human numbers have an impact on conflict intensity. And this is the bottom line: in the overwhelming majority of cases the cause of conflict is human-driven and it is critical for us to recognise and acknowledge this if we are to find equilibrium in our relationship with elephants.