Sound practices can help mitigate human-elephant conflicts

By Deepanwita Gita Niyogi

As social media erupts in anger over the killing of a pregnant elephant in Kerala, which had come out in search of food, there is a need to understand the deeper issues concerning wildlife management for prevention of deaths on either side.

As the tragic news of the brutal killing of a pregnant elephant in the southern Indian state of Kerala poured in, there has been an outpouring of grief, disgust and anger on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. This is shocking, as India historically has a rich tradition of association with elephants and the animals are considered gods in this country.

According to news reports, the animal was fed a pineapple stuffed with crackers, after which it died a painful death standing in a river. The elephant had ventured out of the forest in search of food. Well-known wildlife expert DS Srivastava said over phone that the guilty should be meted out the highest degree of punishment in this case. “This is the first time when a cracker was placed in a pineapple. When pineapples ripen, the sweet smell attracts elephants,” Srivastava added.

Crackers are often used to chase away elephants, especially when the animals raid paddy fields during the harvest season. However, the expert pointed out that chasing is a different thing, and the intention to kill is something else altogether. Sometimes, mild electric fences are used as a deterrent. But in some cases, villagers have even resorted to high-voltage wires.

“In every state, encroachment in forest areas is increasing and the elephants are coming out. The population of elephants is almost normal in India. But when they come out of forests to eat, conflicts do take place,” Srivastava added.

India’s intense human-elephant conflicts, which invariably increase during the paddy harvest season across several states, witness loss of lives every year. In retaliation, many elephants are also killed, often mercilessly. As the animals enter paddy fields to eat, small and marginal farmers try to protect their precious produce.

Ananda Kumar, who is part of the Mysuru-based wildlife research organisation Nature Conservation Foundation, has been working on human-elephant crisis mitigation in Hassan district of Karnataka in southern India for years. In Hassan, land use changes, opening up of coffee plantations and use of solar fencings have increased human-elephant conflicts. This has prompted the introduction of early warning systems to reduce deaths and casualties by helping people avoid direct encounters with elephants.

“There is no black and white solution to crisis mitigation. Elephants come out in search of food or they often pass through landscapes where there are croplands. People need to understand that they are part of the landscape. Also, it is true that often villagers’ livelihoods are at stake due to elephant raids. So, we should identify crop damage and base our mitigation measures likewise. Another major issue is the loss of human lives. Based on the specific location, there is a need to understand the problem,” Kumar said.

As pointed out by Srivastava, fences often act as deterrents. But in some places, affected populations have either erected fences or dug trenches without understanding the movement of elephants, Kumar pointed out. Kumar cites the instance of Hassan where coffee plantations have solar fences to block elephant movement. “When elephants avoid these fences, they are either stuck in one place or come out on the roads. This has increased crop damage by more than three times,” he added.

As most of our forests are fragmented, they are like islands in vast expanses of human habitation areas. Forest fragmentation is a critical conservation issue at present. So, there is a greater need to allow passage for elephants which is vital, Kumar explained. “We can try to minimise conflicts by identifying such hotspots. Loss of life should be brought down to zero, be it humans or elephants. It is unfortunate that the Kerala incident happened and for this, there is a greater need to work with people,” he added.

Chasing animals is a risky business. Kumar feels that by making animals aggressive, there won’t be any positive results. Rather, there should be appropriate mechanisms based on different localities.

Picture taken by me shows two elephants inside Dalma Wildlife Sanctuary in Jharkhand, India. It is a good habitat for elephants. Jharkhand witnesses a high number of conflict cases due to elephant raids, especially during the paddy harvest season.

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