Understanding The Escalating Human-Elephant Conflict In Southern India
The screams of a young village girl echo far beyond her family’s farm, as acres of banana trees lay flattened, broken, and consumed. In the middle of it all, her father, along with several other villagers, shout and cry, torches ablaze, crackers in hand, chucking rocks at the beasts responsible for the destruction. The herd, now surrounded, blinded, and frightened to death, form a protective circle around the calves, desperately fighting for their lives against fire-bearing monsters. The matriarch, tasked with defending the group, charges toward the villagers while letting out a gut-wrenching trumpet that splits the crowd, sending them running for the hills. The raucous yelling and scampering in all directions bring the elephants and humans in dangerously close proximity. The matriarch grab holds of the farmer trying to escape, hurls him to the ground, and proceeds to maul him to death. It’s a grisly scene. The herd rushes for the hills, and let out their final bellows, vanish into the undergrowth, leaving the village hungry, penniless, and scarred.
Although watching this event unfold from behind a laptop screen didn’t completely capture the moment, it undoubtedly shook up my perception of human-animal conflict. During my recent summer break, I decided to intern with an organization called A Rocha, a grassroots conservation organization attempting to mitigate human-elephant conflict issues in the Bannerghatta landscape. Since it was a chance to study my favorite species, I was thrilled to take up the task. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, I was stuck at home for the entire duration of the proposed internship. However, I was assigned the tedious task of collecting records of human and elephant deaths due to direct conflict, from a study area much larger than Bannerghatta itself. At first, I was a little dejected that I would have to spend hours scouring newspaper articles and research papers for records of dead animals and people, but the more I started looking into it, the more curious and engrossed I became.
The research process was challenging at times, with news sources withholding location information and specific dates of incidents, for which I had to make inferences. Also, I figured that a lot of elephant deaths go unrecorded as farmers bury bodies in their yards to escape fines, or even poison the animals (for which the autopsy reveals a ‘natural death’). Out of the more than 100 records that were collected from various reputed news sources ie. The Hindu, Times Of India, and peer-reviewed research articles, here are some of the noteworthy trends I noticed and inferences I made on the current state of human-elephant conflict in Southern India:
1. Elephants tend to seasonally migrate from one area to another in search of better food and water sources (thus the requirement of a large study area). To reach one protected area from another, elephants pass through tracts of forests known as animal corridors. These corridors are areas of land that connect otherwise fragmented forests with one another and are critical to ensure the genetic diversity* of species while increasing their distribution. Unfortunately, the degradation and fragmentation of these corridors by agricultural and urban land have forced these elephants to move through largely agrarian landscapes to migrate. This is sadly where I recorded the highest number of human and elephant deaths. Towns like Mandya, Kollegal, and Kolar in Karnataka have been constructed over important elephant corridors, and the poorest class (the farmers) now faces the consequences.
2. Perhaps the most poignant trend I discovered illustrates the plight of farmers living in these fragmented areas, namely, the amount of compensation given by governments for human death and crop damage by elephants. According to Sahana Ghosh of Mongabay, in 2016-17, the death of a farmer in the Hosur forest department region could incur compensation of up to 2.4 lakh rupees per person, which is a pittance compared to what that farmer would earn across his lifetime. Even compensation for crop damage by elephants is significantly low compared to the prices of those crops on the market, according to Sanjay Gubbi, an expert on human-elephant conflict. Gubbi also mentions that the long and arduous procedures that need to be undergone to file for a complaint, for which compensation could reach a family years after it was put through, discourages most farmers from asking in the first place. In the end, all this built up frustration leads farmers to retaliate against elephants using any means necessary, from poison to guns, in order to protect their livelihoods.
3. Although it’s clear that farmers living in these areas are forced to adopt a treacherous lifestyle in order to deal with the pressure of crop-raiding elephants, the question arises, what’s the most common cause of farmer and elephant deaths? Nearly all the elephants-farmer altercations indicated that deaths were due to an accidental confrontation. The aforementioned sources have recorded incidents wherein people died while wearing earphones, unable to hear the sound of a trumpeting elephant herd until it was too late. Other stories included forest guards bumping into elephants on patrol duty, and even farmers getting trampled while attempting to chase elephants away from farmland at night. Even so, the most peculiar records I came across were the tens of people dying while attending nature’s call, which I never would’ve imagined. It turns out that village folk head to open defecation sites at dawn and dusk, mainly in forest patches frequented by elephants, leading to some deadly altercations, and subsequent deaths.
On the other hand, the majority of elephant deaths in these regions occur due to electrocution by (mainly illegally erected) electric fences placed around farmland (this accounted for around 41% of the records). Elephants looking for food often tried to find ways around or over human obstacles to get to crops or other forest tracts, and in turn, fell victim to high voltage fences and power lines. Other causes of death included railway accidents and illegal poaching, predominantly in the Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary, where poor forest department protection has given rise to an increase in tusker hunting for ivory.
4. Lastly, after digging through a multitude of regional and national news articles, I began to notice the way elephants were being perceived by the media. Elephants like ‘Rowdy Ranga’ started to surface, and words like ‘rogue’ and ‘killer’ were being thrown about when characterizing elephants that had killed humans, even due to accidental encounters. After what I’ve researched regarding elephant-human encounters, the frequency and extent of trauma-induced to the elephant determine whether it becomes a “rogue”. Elephants are smart animals, and adapt to situations quickly after habituation. The trauma faced by an elephant surrounded by people who could kill it will make it more likely for the same elephant to display aggressive behavior in the future. However, attaching negative connotations to every elephant that kills a human is unjust, and further amplifies the feelings of resentment towards elephants in the region. A quick look at elephant behavior can help distinguish the types of elephants that may cause harm if threatened.
Although elephants appear docile for the most part, there are a few instances when they can be very volatile and attack without provocation. According to A Rajaram (who published the journal “Musth in Elephants”), when a bull elephant is in musth**, he begins to showcase aggressive tendencies, even towards bystanders. This is usually marked by a secretion from the bull’s temporal gland (located at the forehead), the constant release of urine, and a characteristic walk while twisting its trunk or resting it on its tusk. Musth elephants can be easily provoked into charging, and they usually don’t back down easily. Female elephants in herds with calves also do attack bystanders if they feel threatened. These are usually ‘mock charges’, used as an intimidating display, rather than to cause harm. Nevertheless, it does change the attitudes of residents towards elephants being around their property. As such, the challenge of conflict mitigation is made even more problematic by the species’ love for crops, including ragi(millet), banana, and sugarcane, which tempt many an elephant to breach the forest boundaries to gorge on the plentiful harvests. This perception is backed up by the Karnataka Forest Department’s records of crop loss, with ragi being the worst-hit species. However, it is fallacious to blame the elephants for the damage done, since it is the encroachment of humans into their land that creates such problems in the first place. Both sides of the ongoing battle for land are losing in their own ways, and solutions have seen mixed results.
Bringing awareness to the issues of human-animal conflict is just a small step on the path to curbing these problems. Appropriate mitigation techniques are being tested to protect agricultural land from elephants (and other animals). Some deterrents include chili extract fences, which irritate the elephants’ olfactory senses, but these haven’t proven very effective in the long run, since the smell wafts away during monsoons, and elephants get used to the odor over time. Solar electric fences are also being employed around farmland, however, small voltages entice elephants to break through them, and high voltages can prove fatal. A fairly successful system initiated in Tamil Nadu is the EWS (Early Warning System), which warns nearby farmers and citizens of the presence of elephants nearby. Unfortunately, it doesn’t help with the issue of handling the elephants in the fields, although it can help pinpoint the location of herds for the forest department, who end up driving the elephants back into the forest, although not frequently enough.
The unfortunate truth of the situation is that solutions like these, effective or otherwise, aren’t getting priority or an adequate budget. Positively heightened political and social involvement in such issues is the only way of securing a future for these corridors, and the same can be applied for most forests in the subcontinent. As India emerges from the lockdown period, the re-emergence of humans in the industry is bound to intensify habitat destruction and fragmentation, and this is already happening. The government, via EIA 2020, plans to give environmental clearances to a plethora of potentially harmful infrastructural projects in a desperate bid to increase economic growth. Although the clearance given to the Etalin Hydropower Project in Dibang Valley was talked about, other projects in lesser discussed parts of India have started to gain momentum. Expressways cutting through sanctuaries, new railway, and transmission lines are among a myriad of projects that have been approved by the MoEFCC panels, spelling doom for many pristine ecosystems, while bringing humans and animals ever closer together.
As the world develops, it’s critical for us as humans not to lose sight of our balance with nature, which we all depend on. Human-animal conflict will always remain an issue, but sustainable development, appropriate funding, and awareness can help us maintain that balance, not only in India but everywhere on the Planet.
* : Biological genetic diversity refers to the variability of certain genes in all members of a particular species. A low genetic diversity indicates a very low resilience to environmental factors, such as disease. An isolated/fragmented population of species can be easily wiped out by a single factor, whereas diverse populations have a higher ability for certain members of the species to be tolerant to those conditions. A large gene pool is a key to the long-term survival of a species.
** : Musth is a period wherein a male elephant is in a state of increased sexual activity, and secretes a large amount of testosterone, heavily increasing its aggressive tendencies during mating season, and typically lasting for months.