Recent news of human incidents with wild elephants that resulted in five people losing their lives in West Bengal, India, is just another reminder of the growing problem between man and elephant sharing the same space. In your opinion, what are the main causes of human-elephant conflict?
There are several factors: Fragmentation of natural habitats, habitat loss, developmental activities, and change in land-use patterns in and around elephant habitats. These are the main drivers of conflicts between people and elephants.
We often fail to consider the requirements of elephants during the decision-making process in the interface areas between people and elephants. In many cases the ultimate sufferers are the elephants. This is largely attributed to public pressure placed on decision-makers.
How can we best address this conflict?
We really need to understand the conflict in a holistic way. There tends to be a mismatch between people, the government and scientists. We need to ask: what are the limitations from the government’s perspective and the stakeholders/farmers/plantation companies, what are the requirements of the people and what do we understand from an elephant’s perspective as a scientist? We need to align these three together and make a decision.
How best should people react when faced with a situation similar to the one in West Bengal?
It is obvious that the people were in a state of panic when they saw an elephant in a paddy field. They reacted by making loud noises, bursting crackers, and surrounding the animal which made things worse. In general, it is only because people do not know how to handle the situation that typical mob behaviour ends up dominating the circumstance. This is where presence of authoritative persons who are good at mobilising and guiding the crowd would play an important role. Crowd management is one of the key practices that needs to be strictly followed in human-wildlife conflict management. Be it an elephant or a leopard in human-use areas, there should be adequate space for them to move away. We need to get across to people that these large animals need space. We have to create awareness that violent behaviour would only lead to tragic incidents.
Are there specific actions that the Indian government should take to prevent such incidences from happening again?
In many places we do not have reliable and sustained data on human-elephant conflict. Yet perception of conflict seems to have increased among different sections of society. Project Elephant by the Indian government has already taken several steps to deal with the issue. However, there are certain key points that must be given serious attention. One is providing legal status to elephant reserves as there are many forests which are not legally identified as such. Critical assessments need to be carried out before any development project is approved in elephant habitats and in the surrounding forests to identify sensitivity of region for elephants and people living in those areas. Though governmental compensation schemes for loss of life and crop damages due to elephants are helping to increase people’s tolerance levels, the bureaucratic process of disbursing payments should be minimised and quick payments of compensations to people should be considered. Public and private partnerships should be encouraged for initiating insurance schemes which would cover crop loss or life coverage of people in case of any eventuality. We should shift our conventional thinking of ‘problem elephant’ approach to ‘problem location’ approach.
As elephants continue to damage farmers’ crops and cause lives to be lost, they may be perceived as ‘pests’ and seen as ‘dangerous’...
Perceptions of people towards human-elephant conflict vary depending on socio-economic status. How small farmers view a crop damage incident by elephants is completely different to a big farmer or a Forest Department employee or a biologist.
However, I don’t agree that elephants are being seen as ‘pests’ by the majority of people, at least in India and Sri Lanka. People’s tolerance levels are generally high towards wildlife. It is because of this that large amounts of wildlife still exist in human-dominated areas in India. There are 300 million people in India living either close to or inside forests interacting with wild animals on a day-to-day basis. We would have lost many wildlife species, particularly large mammals such as elephants, leopards, or tigers if they were considered ‘pests’ by people. There are both cultural and religious tolerances of these species coupled with aesthetic significance, prevailing in a large part of Indian society: this is saving many of these species. Of course, when species such as elephants enter a house or farmland, people consider them potentially dangerous due to fear of losing their life and their property, which is a natural instinct. This may follow undesirable reactions that can create panic and danger to both sides. It is the responsibility of scientists, conservationists and administrative people to work towards increasing tolerance levels of people towards elephants by providing safety to people, their property as well as the elephants themselves.
Elephant Family has recently signed an alliance with four other organisations to secure 100 elephant corridors across India by 2025. How much do you see securing elephant corridors as being a solution to this growing problem, not just in India but across Asia?
I believe that protection of elephant corridors is one of the crucial aspects for elephant conservation and mitigation of human-elephant conflict. But we also need to keep in mind that it is not only securing the physical connectivity that is important but also the retention of the functional connectivity as these also play critical roles in conservation of elephants and conflict resolution.
What I mean by functional connectivity is that elephants will not necessarily look at the forest as their complete, ideal habitat. Nearly 65 per cent of Asian elephants live outside protected areas. It is a huge number. They are moving through human-used areas where there may be cropland and plantations. So if you cut off those areas from their movement by having something else, an obstruction or mining, we will lose that functional connectivity. I am really concerned about that part. We need to find places that offer functional connectivity to elephants and see how important they are in terms of elephant conservation, in terms of frequency of movement and how many elephants are actually using those landscapes.
There are an estimated 50,000 Asian elephants left in the wild today, with approximately over half of the population in India. With India’s population at over 1.2 billion alone, do you believe that there will continue to be a place for Asian elephants in today’s world?
Thanks to the Forest laws in India the National Parks, wildlife sanctuaries, and tiger reserves have been very well protected. Elephant populations in these protected areas are safe. The Indian government has created 32 elephant reserves in India across elephant range states which are also relatively safe for elephants but they would require legal status as protected forests. However, protection of elephants outside these protected forests would become a challenge for elephant conservation. But I am hopeful that elephants in India will continue to live in most parts barring a few areas where they have a bleak future, unless we act sensibly now.
What I know from my colleagues who are working with elephants in other parts of Asia is that elephant population is on decline in most of the Southeast Asian countries. One of the remarkable steps that my colleague from Nature Conservation Foundation, Sanjay Gubbi, has done in Karnataka, India, was bring nearly 2,500km² of unclassified forest areas into the protected area network. Such steps are urgently needed to provide space for elephants in other parts of Asia.
If we could actually transform conflict areas to co-existence areas that would be the greatest achievement one can ever do for both humans and elephants.