‘Marauding elephants’, ‘wreaking havoc’, ‘trampling’, ‘destroying’; these are some of the expletives used to refer to elephants in the Indian mainstream media. But what changed over the past decade which turned elephants, also worshipped as Lord Ganesha into this destructive force?
There are about 27000 wild elephants in India as per the recently concluded elephant population estimation. A significant proportion of this population frequently used human-use areas in the country. The reasons for the presence of elephants in human-use areas are many, from highly fragmented forests to availability of easy forage in human settlements like crops and orchards. However, the main reason is that elephants need to be continuously on the move.
An adult elephant can consume up to 200 kg of wild fodder per day, this implies that if elephants are forced to be confined to a small forest fragment, they will soon eat off the entire forest. Hence, nature has made them highly mobile species which move from one forest patch to another in search of food so that the forests also get time to regenerate. In the process, the forest tree seeds also get a free lift to be sowed in other regions after moving through the gut of the animals.
This behavior of elephants does not create a problem when the animals reside in contiguous forest patches such as the Western Ghats, but when forests are fragmented; the elephants often pass through human-use areas thereby giving rise to the ‘conflict’ paradigm.
We, as humans are habituated to associate elephants and other ‘wild’ animals with the wilderness. However, these animals are oblivious to our boundaries and this disparity between where we think wild animals should be and where they are actually found has lead to considerable conflicts commonly known as ‘man-animal conflict’ in popular literature.
Elephants are large-bodied animals, and when they are present in human-use areas, damages to both human and elephants occur. Especially, when we are not expecting to find and manage elephants in our backyards, paddy fields and orchards. The most extreme manifestations of elephants in human spaces are human and elephant deaths. Such incidents cause widespread fear and concern among the general public, conservation practitioners, media, forest departments and all stakeholders.
About 400 people die in India due to elephant attacks each year, the number of injuries are often much higher. Even though the number of deaths is minuscule when compared to other sources of accidental human mortality in India, such incidents due to attacks of elephants evoke strong emotions and need to be urgently minimised to ensure support for elephant conservation in India.
Remarkably, most of the human fatalities in India due to elephants do not occur where elephants numbers are high. For example, Jharkhand, West Bengal and Chhattisgarh together have less than 3000 elephants but account for the majority of the human fatalities in India. Not surprisingly, these three states have highly fragmented forests and high density of human population. These states also have a high population of tribal within the elephant ranges who are prone to chronic alcoholism and brewing of country liquors (World Health Organization, Global Status Report on Alcohol and Health, 2014). However, there is little published evidence to link alcoholism with elephant caused mortality but my ongoing studies in northern Bengal points to the fact that alcohol can play an important role in exacerbating conflict leading to human deaths.
In Jharkhand, forest officials have been quick to note this relation and the brewing of country liquor has been banned in several elephant range areas. This is to prevent human casualties as the elephants are lured by this liquor and moreover, inebriated people often chase elephants out of bravado and die in the process. Crowds of people often throng to see elephants in many places which often cause untoward incidents as well. Also, a large proportion of human fatalities occur when people are trying to protect their crops and while chasing away elephants, especially in West Bengal and Odisha. Such incidents create significant management problems.
The management of elephants and the ‘conflict’ is entrusted to the Forest Departments and this has also compromised timely and effective management of the problem. Forest Department officials are experts in managing forests and wildlife in forest areas, but their training in managing animals in human-use areas is limited.
Moreover, it is often more effective to manage people rather than the animals in such situations. Steps such as crowd control, crop protection and human safety also come under the preview of the Police Department, Agriculture Department, as well as the Health Department, but the blame is mostly shouldered by respective Forest Departments when any negative incidents occur.
The focus needs to shift from reactive measures, such as compensation and elephant removals to proactive measures, including crop protection, elephant movement monitoring and information broadcasting as well as well-trained staff at the ground level who will be at the frontline to ensure safe passage to elephants between forests and minimal public interference in such activities.
Local inhabitants who face losses such as crop damage and economic losses should be compensated effectively and adequately. Ensuring necessary precautions to prevent elephant damage are already in place. Media has to play a key role in changing the discourse from blaming certain agencies and animals to focus on the unique opportunities that India presents to the world in protecting endangered species even in human-use landscapes. Minimising damages to local people needs to be the immediate priority for ensuring peaceful cohabitation between people and elephants in the diverse elephant landscapes in the country.
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL).