Bannerghatta National Park, a part of one of the largest scrub forests in India, covers an area of about 260 km sq and is only about 27 km from Bengaluru. The 2023 elephant census suggested the presence of about 127 elephants in the area which also sees frequent incidents of human elephant conflicts.
The Bannerghatta-Hosur area of the Eastern Ghats, which comprises three protected areas including the Bannerghatta national park, the Cauvery North Wildlife Sanctuary (Tamil Nadu), and the Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary, is the focal area of intervention of A Rocha India. The organisation’s conservation efforts span this 2,500 sqkm area which has about 1,500 elephants.
Dr. Avinash Krishnan, director of A Rocha India, notes that while elephant conservation has always been a key mandate in India, the Bannerghatta-Hosur area didn’t receive much attention like other areas such as Bandipore until the early 2000s.
“If you look at the recent annual forest department report, Bangalore Circle where Bannerghatta is has the highest number of conflict cases. Since this landscape was overlooked, the issues were also overlooked. We felt that as a civic body our responsibility was much higher than just complementing efforts in landscapes where there were already enough or more initiatives,” he says.
In the last two decades the number of elephants in Bannerghatta has almost doubled as per census figures. A Rocha India uses research as an important tool to guide its efforts and understand the issues more holistically.
Human-elephant conflict is a site-specific problem driven by larger causal factors and measuring it just by number of deaths doesn’t give a holistic perspective, points out Dr. Krishnan.
According to him, in Bannerghatta and Hosur factors like the fragmented nature of the region, the huge human population, ineffective land use management, increased change in land cover due cultivation and development, and growing expansion aspirations of the local population are all compounding factors that heavily influence the conflicts. More interestingly, elephants also learn to adapt.
Considering everything, the question is how to keep the conflicts at manageable levels such that people are not displaced or ripped off their livelihoods.
“Our intervention that way is to try and see what the best practices are across and try and bring them to Bannerghatta.”
The team started off by researching the complex layers of the issue and working with communities.
The first attempted solution was a social barrier which involved fencing private farms using chilli-tobacco fences and asking farmers to take responsibility for protecting the farms. “More than success that brought in a lot of community will. Communities were now willing to participate in mitigation,” Dr Krishnan remembers.
The team then started surveying the existing boundary barrier system along the 285-km perimeter of the park and worked with the authorities to see if the allocated state resources for mitigating conflict could be put to use in the right way. This brought to the surface a lot of intricate information including encroachment of forest land, compensation demand for crop loss on encroached land and so on.
The next step was site-specific intervention.
“We looked at the feasibility and limitations of types of barriers in different locations. We also realised conflict is not uniform across this landscape. For example, there are areas of low conflict where community tolerance is high. So, in such areas, we tried to offset the dependency of people on agriculture and started programmes like soft skill training and other strategically devised projects and activities, coupled with a lot of sensitisation and community building.”
While all of this was being carried out, it was also observed that the elephants were also adapting extremely fast.
“We’d come up with a solution and by one season elephants would learn to overcome it.”
To catch up the team turned to technology. Early warning systems, infrared signals, seismic signals, router system, bio acoustics and so on were experimented with.
“We also started understanding which elephants operate in which area. We have enough data to establish personalities in elephants. We knew certain elephants would not break solar fences, but certain others would. We started gathering that level of depth of knowledge, and then we started intervening at that level,” Dr. Krishnan notes.
A Rocha is currently doing the Elephant Corridor Project in collaboration with the Wildlife Trust of India. One of the three elephant corridors in Bannerghatta is blocked due to private land between two forests, and this forces the elephants to go around increasing their exposure to the villagers and chances of conflicts. The project looks at solutions for this.
Dr. Krishnan says, “Understanding conflict is a long-term narrative. We are trying to intervene at smaller levels and trying to stitch that larger vision that is mitigating human elephant conflicts.”