On a collision course

Close encounters: A herd of elephants straying into human habitation in Hassan district in Karnataka. Photo Courtesy: Wild Life Division, Forest Department)

Close encounters: A herd of elephants straying into human habitation in Hassan district in Karnataka. Photo Courtesy: Wild Life Division, Forest Department)  


As agriculture expands, it encroaches more and more into spaces that were rightfully the elephant’s, leading to increasing incidents of human-elephant conflicts. How do we balance our needs with the survival of a species?

Conservation in developing countries must, as environmental scientist Norman Myers said many years ago, sustain both spirit and stomach. Resolving this classic dilemma is essential to provide the Asian elephant a secure future. Elephants have enjoyed strong bonds with people in India, both as religious and cultural symbols, and as a conservation mascot. But, as the human population grows and agriculture expands, they find themselves in an adversarial relationship with local communities.

Elephant Gajasastra lore dating back to the BC era records “invasions” by the giant animals. Today, many complain that these invasions, or raids, continue as highly palatable crops in fields, rich food and grain stored in houses and school kitchens attract the animals.

Unlike in the West, where large mammals such as the wolf were exterminated for interfering with human activities, communities in India have been tolerant towards elephants and tigers despite the regular losses they suffered in conflicts. Research scientist Raman Sukumar, Professor at the Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, believes that the traditional ethos, which helped the elephant and tiger persist over centuries, may not be as relevant in today’s situation and attitudes are changing.

The evidence indicates that conflicts involving elephants may increase as India’s billion-plus people expand their territory with each passing year. These confrontational situations receive wide publicity, although the quantum of economic losses as a percentage of, say, agricultural production for a given landscape may be insignificant. Data from the Valparai plateau show that the annual monetary loss to plantations was a mere Rs.35 per hectare. In comparison with other chronic scourges, the incidents involving elephants involve a low death toll. On an average year, about 200 people die in India during crop raiding and other conflicts (by contrast, the official estimate for the number of people killed in road accidents during 2005 was 94,968 with projections for a sharp increase in the future). It is significant that at least a hundred elephants also die annually during or as a result of the encounters.

India hosts the largest number of Asian elephants among countries where this species is found. There are two dominant elephant species in the world, and predictably, both are involved in conflicts. There are a few hundred thousand African elephants roaming the wilds of that great continent, but Asian elephant populations are relatively small — a scientific paper co-authored by Professor Sukumar and published by the journal of the Royal Society last year estimates the population at something between 41,000 and 52,000.

Threatened everywhere

On a geological scale, research shows that present-day African and Asian elephants shared the same evolutionary path until about 7.6 million years ago, when their ancestors diverged. What is important is that both are in trouble. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) places the African elephant in the “Near Threatened” category in the 2008 Red List of threatened species, but it is the Asian species that is apparently in greater peril. There is a decreasing trend in its population, the IUCN Red List says, and it is therefore clearly in the “Endangered” category.

Conserving the Asian elephant is primarily India’s responsibility, as the population of the Asian species both in the wild and in captivity is concentrated in the country. Mitigating human elephant conflict, and instituting better compensation mechanisms for losses arising from these events form the major focus of elephant conservation efforts. This is a challenging task, because crop raiding by elephants is certain to increase as crops like sugarcane, beets, banana, mango, jackfruit, coconut, cereals and millets are planted either in proximity to forests or in the migratory corridors of elephants. When the animals find a more attractive food variety in cultivated areas, it is a powerful lure. The result is crop raiding.

Elephants spend much of the day eating and when they come across crops grown close to their habitat, they do not hesitate to raid the fields. A range of methods to fend off raids — non-lethal electrified fencing, trenches, “chilli bombs” that release pungent smoke, firecrackers, tame elephants deployed as guards, human guards and so on — have been tried with varied levels of success. In the end, the best methods are those that reduce crop losses as well as harm to the animal. In many cultivation areas in south India and the northeast, though, crop raiding is frequent and the losses to farmers have to be compensated.

Substantial outlay

The Indian government, which started Project Elephant for conservation of the flagship species, spends substantial amounts of money towards compensation payments for farmers. Project Elephant works in 26 reserves. It spent Rs. 63 crores during the Tenth Plan on protection activities. For the current plan, it set apart an even higher quantum of Rs. 81 crores. The bulk of these funds — as much as 80 per cent — are usually devoted to compensation pay-outs to those who claim damage to crops, property and infrastructure.

A long-term plan will therefore have to aim for reduction of human-elephant conflicts, through a variety of measures. This goal is attracting great scientific interest because it will take greater understanding of elephant biology, movements and corridor mapping to remove barriers that lead to conflicts. Sustained policy support and the goodwill of communities is equally important. Some researchers note that people living inside forests face fewer problems from elephants, than those who farm on forest fringes or in elephant corridors.

A recent assessment (Review of Human-Elephant Conflict Mitigation Measures Practised in South Asia, Worldwide Fund for Nature, 2008) emphasises the need to strengthen support for communities. M. Ananda Kumar, a scientist with the Nature Conservation Foundation in Valparai, Tamil Nadu, one of the contributors to the review, narrates the story of Chamarajanagar district in Karnataka to illustrate the point about elephant behaviour. When the Karnataka government funded farm borewells, farmers shifted from dry cropping to high value wet crops such as sugarcane. It was only a matter of time before they were visited by elephants, which earlier had no fancy for the area.

Kumar also points to the need for a sustained scientific effort to map the movements of individual herds, identify the most intractable animals and reorient agriculture in the corridors for good results. His field studies show that conflicts can also be avoided by what could be called the “five and fifty” rule — elephants seem to tolerate less than five people, if they remain 50 metres away. That also provides a useful pointer to what is considered the safe distance for wildlife tourists, who must carry appropriate lenses to get the best elephant pictures and still use discretion. Tribals or trained guards should accompany such tourists to watch out for angry elephants.

Huge enterprise

As large mammals that travel across vast ranges, elephants have a habitat requirement of 200 to 600 sq km. Any effort to reduce friction points between elephants and humans must, therefore, cover entire sanctuaries, national parks and landscapes, rather than the individual villages facing problems.

Elephants are intelligent animals that quickly learn to work their way around the barriers erected by people. An important lesson available from years of work in reducing human-elephant conflict is that solutions conceived purely from a human perspective may deliver poor results because elephants turn out to be smarter.

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