The news last week about a pregnant elephant having her mouth blown caused outrage on social media. It’s impossible not to empathise with the pain of the elephant, which stood impassively in a river and died a slow death. But the wide narrative about the death of humanity is oversimplified. While people are demonising the farmer responsible for the incident, it is important to note that the elephant was an unintended target. Most crackers are aimed at wild boar that destroy small farmers’ crop. A major failing of conservation in India is that the needs of farmers and wild animals do not go hand in hand.
Problems with the narrative
With the absence of large predators outside forests and the huge availability of easily accessible food crops, deer, monkeys, boar and other species inevitably fill this space. In almost all developed nations these species are kept in control so they don’t destroy large crop areas. In less developed countries, local people take matters into their own hands. Studies show this “reciprocity” — boars eating crops, people eating boar — is what allows farmers tolerate these otherwise problematic animals. India does not allow rural people to hunt animals, but neither does the government cull animals regularly despite their numbers shooting up.
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While the government has the provision to declare overabundant animals “vermin”, and cull them under the Wildlife Protection Act, it very rarely does this. Vocal urban wildlife activist groups generally create a social media storm when such decisions are taken and challenge the order in court. These groups have no empathy for the farmers who struggle to make their ends meet while growing food for all of us. Kerala had declared boar “vermin”, but very few have been killed over the years.
Given the widespread destruction of crop by these animals, farmers urgently need a safety net. Compensation schemes are one part of the solution, but in India this is always only a fraction of the market value of the crop, which is already precariously low. Poor farmers spend a lot of time navigating bureaucratic processes to get it. And there is no end to this process — some animal numbers just keep going up, linked to the availability of agricultural food crops, and the government cannot sustain an exponential growth in compensation.
Second, this incident is far from new. The start of the monsoon is when animals move into human habitation more, partly on account of jackfruit and other crops/fruits. Incidents like this take place as it is notoriously hard to identify the culprits, since the event occurs much before the injured elephants are found. While there are dozens of calls to charge the culprits, it is far from easy for the forest department and police to do this.
The third problem with the narrative around this incident is that all humans are grouped together. While some people are indeed over-exploiting the planet, everyone is far from being equally culpable for the ecological disaster that we are now in. Modern, developed, urban humans are in fact disproportionately responsible since we consume infinitely more resources. It is our greed that has destroyed vast tracts of forests and thousands of elephants and other animals over the last few decades. The poor farmer who inadvertently kills one elephant in an attempt to feed us while making enough money for himself is much less responsible.
If arresting the person responsible is not going to be the solution, what can we do? This is best answered at two levels: one, how do we make sure that elephants don’t die in this way, and two, how do we reduce negative human-elephant interactions?
The first problem is relatively simpler to solve: we should control the population of wild boar to minimise the impact they have on farmers. This is untenable to most people, since conservation in India is arguably mixed up with animal rights. Boars are classified “least concern”, and are in absolutely no danger of going extinct. If they are causing the death of much more threatened species like elephants, that gives us all the more reason to control their numbers. The modalities of this have to be worked out carefully to ensure there is no over-hunting and local extinction in some areas that have governance or enforcement problems. But the inability to enforce rules should not be used as an excuse for not taking decisive action about the expanding boar population.
What can we do about the problem of elephants destroying crops, damaging property and killing people in accidental encounters? The modern conservation movement aims to separate human and wildlife spaces. When there is an overlap, there is a mistaken assumption that “conflict” is inevitable. This is arguably at odds with the reality in India, where the majority of animal range is outside protected areas. For elephants only about 25% of their range is within protected areas. The extent of distribution of other species is not even fully known. One study in central India by Majgaonkar and others found that only 2.6% of the range of leopards, hyenas and wolves in central India was within protected areas. So animals and people, particularly elephants, have always been interacting with each other. While there have always been problems, most interactions are peaceful, and there is a deep cultural tolerance not found in other parts of the world. However, as animals and human numbers grow and there is more pressure on land, the challenges of living together will also increase.
The way forward
At a policy level, a good starting point would be to reorient the forest department to do away with the wildlife-territorial dichotomy of management that currently exists, especially since nobody has managed to inform animals that they are only allowed to stay in wildlife divisions. Beyond that there are no universal solutions. Solutions vary based on the context, the kinds of crops grown, density of people, socioeconomic status, etc. Farmers should be empowered and subsidised to better protect their land rather than wait for compensation or be forced to resort to these extreme, illegal measures out of desperation.
India has done well in saving nature given its high population density. But as it continues to develop, there is going to be huge pressure on the natural world. While it is heartening to see everyone get upset about the death of the elephant, the hope is that there will also be large-scale protests about the large-scale destruction of the environment. The National Board for Wildlife and the Forest Advisory Committee are meant to scrutinise and minimise the large-scale diversion of forest land for development projects, but they have been reduced to rubber-stamping bodies. Even a coal mine inside an elephant reserve in Assam was recently cleared. The government is easing up environmental clearances and opening up forests for destruction to boost a post-COVID economy. When industrialists like Ratan Tata, who are angry and easily condemn the farmer, also start to protest about these bigger concerns on Twitter, we can pat ourselves on the back for being a truly environmentally conscious society.
Tarsh Thekaekara is a Post Doctoral Fellow at the National Centre for Biological Sciences