Human-Elephant Conflict In India
April 2011: “In the case of elephant and man we have one of the best examples known of two superficially dissimilar animals sharing common biological needs, and therefore competing vigorously whenever they contact each other.” – Alistair Graham (1973).
Until a few years ago, elephants summering in the upper reaches (as high as 3,300 m.) of Arunachal Pradesh’s Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary, returned to the foothills before temperatures dipped. Local villagers say that in recent times, the pachyderms have begun to tarry up in the mountains well into autumn, and sometimes even through the cold winter months. What is left in the foothills to come back for? Vast swathes of lowland forests in adjacent Assam have been clear felled leaving these huge animals without food or home.
According to the Forest Survey of India, Assam lost 65 per cent of its lowland semi-evergreen forests since 1972. In the adjacent state of Meghalaya, forest cover declined from 33.1 per cent in 1980-1982 to 18 per cent in 1995. All included, the northeastern states lost 1,802 sq. km. of elephant range habitat between 1991 and 1999. Other parts of the elephant’s range are no exception. In northern Karnataka, Orissa and Jharkhand, elephants have lost large chunks of habitat to mining and encroachments. Just as in Assam, pachyderms in these states have dramatically expanded their range into neighbouring areas which had no history of elephant presence for several decades or even, centuries. Extreme weather events like El Niño can also have a similar dramatic impact on elephants. During the drought of 1983, several herds moved from Hosur (Tamil Nadu) into Andhra Pradesh where people had not seen elephants for over a century.
Unlike tigers, the bulk of whose range falls within Protected Areas, only 22 per cent of elephant habitat is enclosed in sanctuaries and national parks. Since the rest of their range lies in areas of increasing human density where there is intense competition for the same resources, conflict is inevitable.
While it is largely reported that elephants compensate for habitat loss by eating crops, bulls in particular may take advantage of the easy availability of crops and stored grain. Additionally, eating crops may also be a learned behaviour. Calves may learn to crop raid from the adults in the herd or young dispersing bulls may learn by associating with bulls that do. This may not only explain the widespread nature of the phenomenon but also the behavioural difference between herds in the same region.
LOSSES ON BOTH SIDES
The estimated 28,000 wild elephants in India are distributed over an area of about 109,500 sq. km., about three per cent of the country’s geographical area. In some of these tracts, a segment of the elephant population killed an average of 350 people annually over the last five years (2005-2010), and damaged an average of 330 sq. km. of crops every year for the last three years (2007-2010). The Central and State Governments together spend Rs. 10 to 15 crores every year on controlling elephant depredation and paying ex-gratia to affected people.
Elephants and their habitat also pay the price of conflict; while forty to fifty are killed a year while crop-raiding, forests are destroyed in the belief that it will prevent them from using the area. Discontented local farmers will frequently aid poachers in killing problem wildlife. Many elephants are caught in the pincer grip of habitat loss/fragmentation and retaliation caused by increasing conflict.
Subsistence farmers and those with small holdings are the least able to withstand the risks posed by human-elephant conflict, and in some extreme cases they have even been forced to abandon their farms. Conflict with elephants can further marginalise an already impoverished people while driving these large herbivores to take greater risks, thus jeopardising the lives of both animals and humans. Unless timely, effective mitigation measures intervene, the conservation of elephants is in question throughout most of their range, in India and elsewhere in Asia.
WHAT CAN BE DONE?
Human-elephant conflict mitigation measures fall under two categories: the short-term (tactical) ones that address the symptoms and the long-term (strategic) solutions that address the underlying causes. The majority of current solutions either target problem elephants or apply short-term conflict mitigation at the interface between expanding agriculture and diminishing elephant range and therefore achieve only limited success.
Traditional or local short-term methods include prayer, noise (shouting, beating drums, burning bamboo, bursting fire crackers), light (fire at entry points to fields, powerful spotlights) and missiles (stones, spears). Platforms on trees (machaan) or huts at ground-level are used as look-outs and manned by individual farmers or groups guarding several fields cooperatively. While studies have shown that such tactics have helped reduce crop loss significantly, the inability of farmers to stay up awake over several consecutive nights limits its viability on a continuous basis. People also endanger their lives by getting too close to elephants or directly confronting them.
Well-maintained barriers serve to keep elephants away from farmland but may funnel them to unprotected adjacent villages. Fences and trenches are compromised by people who need access to forests. Badly planned barriers that do not take elephant behaviour and use of landscape into consideration can be just as bad as “development” obstructions such as highways, railroads or canals. For example, denying elephants access to a critical water source or foraging area can be detrimental to their survival and may even aggravate conflict. In Bandipur, a trench separates the Reserve Forest from the National Park and there are elephants on both sides. Instead of excluding elephants from the human landscape, such barriers prevent them from moving between forests. The West Bengal Forest Department installed a 70 km. electric fence to stop the elephants from Dalma Wildlife Sanctuary (Bihar) from crossing the state boundary. The pachyderms thus held in check damaged crops in Bihar until the local people surreptitiously cut the fence to mitigate the problem.
Although much-touted in some quarters, bio-fences such as agave and cacti have been found to be ineffective. Providing alternate forage sources by planting food trees and bamboos over large areas is time consuming and also impractical. In West Bengal, the Forest Department planted bamboo and fodder grass for elephants. While the plantations raised in Jaldapara Wildlife Sanctuary succeeded in encouraging the animals to stay within the park, the efforts were frustrated by villagers who grazed their livestock, illegally collected firewood, fodder and caused wild fires.
A comparative study of the efficacy of chilli and tobacco-laced fences indicate that they are more effective in low rainfall areas and in deterring elephant herds more than bulls. Such chemical deterrents should be used as a novel weapon just prior to crop harvest (when damage typically peaks) in order to prevent the animals from getting used to it; it is also possible that such an olfactory-irritating fence is more a psychological than physiological barrier.
The Forest Departments aid villagers by chasing away elephants using scaring squads, driving them across the landscape into forests, and removing those perceived to be dangerous, either by capture, translocation or killing. But neither elephant numbers nor densities appear to have an effect on conflict. In Bengal, capturing half the herds and killing about 20 rogue elephants did not make any significant difference to crop depredations through the 1980s. The northeastern area of Kodagu District (Karnataka) has very little forests left and a low estimated elephant density, yet it suffered more conflict than the rest of the district. Similarly in Assam, while the elephant population is decreasing, conflict is escalating. Conversely, the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve has very high elephant densities but crop loss is considered low.
Most long-term measures require humans to modify their behaviour. Conflict mitigation cannot be solved by the Forest Department alone; it requires multidisciplinary collaborations between the Department of Agriculture, insurance companies, land-use planners, biologists and the Forest Department. The implementation of these methods requires a long time frame as well as political will.
The current and future land use plans need to accommodate elephants. This could be an entry point for much wider conservation action, whose significance goes beyond these large mammals. To be successful, a national policy, with a budget to implement it, is needed. Since habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation are the root causes of the problem, they need to be addressed to provide long-term solution to conflict.
An important consideration in the choice of a particular measure is an economic cost-benefit analysis for a region and situation. Before deciding which method to opt for, an evaluation of the population and habitat needs to be undertaken. Elephant populations in India are found in four situations: large population inhabiting large habitats, large population in fragmented habitats, small populations in large habitats and small populations in fragmented habitats. The nature of conflict is quite different in these populations; for instance, there is only sporadic conflict in the Periyar-Agasthyamalai Elephant Landscape while there is intense conflict over most regions of east-central India (Jharkhand, Orissa and southern West Bengal). Mitigation options would obviously be different in these situations.
Conflict mitigation also requires an increase in local people’s tolerance to damage. Although the perception of conflict is dependent on the farmer’s vulnerability and risk acceptance, this has not been addressed adequately by social science research. For instance, wealth reduces the vulnerability of a farmer to loss, yet sometimes, it is the richer ones (growing cash crops) who are the least tolerant of conflict.
CONSERVATION ACTION PLAN
In several areas, it is small isolated populations of elephants causing conflict. They are sinks for conservation resources and may provide no long-term benefits for the species. A conservation action plan that prioritises and recommends management action for populations based on their long-term viability is a necessity. It is essential that human-elephant conflict mitigation becomes an integral part of the national elephant conservation policy. Currently there is an inordinate stress on conflict mitigation measures such as erecting electric fences, while little is done to consolidate elephant habitat or formulate land use plans. Transborder cooperation is needed to manage elephant populations across India’s international borders with Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh. Development of a rigorous decision-making framework will require the participation of social scientists and economists.
There is a need for a clear policy and strategic planning to resolve human-elephant conflict and elephant conservation issues. The current approach to dealing with conflict is largely ad hoc, and predisposed to failure because of inappropriate application of methods, lack of involvement of local people, lack of monitoring of conflict and conflict mitigation measures, and inadequate understanding of elephant ecology in deploying mitigation strategies. In the absence of policy there is an inordinate focus on the symptoms rather than the causes of the problem. No single solution is effective and different approaches need to be integrated to address human-elephant conflict proactively.
Elephants and humans are intelligent mammals competing for resources and mitigation ought to involve not just curbing animal movement and consolidating habitat, but also enabling local people to withstand the costs of some level of conflict which will be inevitable.
This article is based on a detailed report on elephant conflict mitigation by the authors. Sanctuary readers can write to the authors or the magazine for a soft copy of the entire report.
By Janaki Lenin and Raman Sukumar