- Since elephant ranges in India overlap with the landscapes inhabited by people, the inherent acceptance of their presence has enabled the persistence of the species in these shared landscapes.
- Eighty percent of elephant distribution in India is outside National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries.
- The high cultural acceptance and veneration towards elephants have enabled space sharing at these interface areas with people despite high losses on either side, writes researcher Aritra Kshettry.
- Positive examples of shared spaces between people and elephants need to come to the fore, including everyday stories of people and elephants living in the same areas with mutual respect and minimal damage.
Last month, in an unfortunate incident, a female elephant died in Kerala – a state with a rich history of relationships between people and elephants, varying from mutual respect and trust to that of violence, cruelty, and subjugation. The furore that erupted over the death of the elephant is indicative of a deeper problem facing Asian elephants today. About 50,000 elephants survive in the wild – 30,000 in India alone.
And approximately 80 percent of the current elephant distribution in India is outside protected areas.
A historical perspective
The earliest accounts of the relationships between people and elephants may be found in Sanskrit texts like Matanga Lila by Nilkantha (set in the region now known as Kerala), Gaja Sashtra by Palakapya Muni and Arthashastra by Kautilya. Captive elephants were widely used in warfare and the presence of elephants in the army provided a strategic advantage over enemies.
Interestingly, elephants played a crucial role in the retreat of Alexander the Great from the banks of the Bipasha (Beas) river as his troops declined to engage with elephant infantry of the Nanda army. Elephants were used as all-terrain vehicles which provided a good vantage of the battlefield and could also be used to overpower enemy foot soldiers with ease.
Arthasashtra dedicates entire chapters to the use of elephants in warfare, at a time when Chandra Gupta Maurya had one of the largest elephant infantries in history. The earliest account of elephant conservation comes from this text, where vast swathes of forests were dedicated to elephants and all sorts of recreational hunting were banned.
At the same time, with the spread of settled agriculture, damage to crops by elephants were also recorded in ancient texts, thereby dating these conflicts and competition back to a millennium. During the British occupancy of India, elephants were used in logging operations. Elephants captured from the wild were used to destroy the same forests that were their home before. The capture of elephants from the wild heavily controlled their populations and the destruction and fragmentation of forests drastically reduced their distribution.
1972 marks a landmark year for wildlife and biodiversity conservation in India, with the enactment of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act. Elephants, like a majority of threatened wildlife species of India, received the highest degree of protection, even when they are present outside forests as well as on private lands. Post-1972, the drastic reduction in elephant numbers, through capture, hunting, and poaching was curtailed to a large extent. This led to the elephant populations stabilising and slowly, over decades, the species recovered in terms of distribution and population.
When it comes to wildlife which is difficult to count reliably, scientists often prefer to monitor their distribution (the total area used by the species) rather than populations (the exact number of individuals) over a country-wide scale. In India, several landscapes have seen the return of elephants after several decades or even centuries.
Elephants are now distributed in parts of Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, and parts of West Bengal — areas where they were not found in the last few decades. The expansion of distribution may be related to ‘push’ factors such as habitat degradation in areas where they came from and also ‘pull’ factors like forest regeneration, irrigated agriculture, and conducive habitat in the newer areas.
The conflict of interest
Between the time that elephants were almost wiped out and now that they are slowly expanding their footprint in India, a lot has changed in our society. The human population of India in the 1900s was 29.4 crores according to the 1901 census; in 2000 it increased to 107.5 crores and as of 2020, it is at 137 crores. The ‘Green Revolution’ and ‘Operation Food’ meant a manifold expansion of agriculture and livestock holdings.
While high livestock pressures increased competition with elephants for food inside forests (push factor), expanding agriculture led to more interface areas between people and elephants due to the lure of nutritive food (pull factor).
Factors like further habitat loss, degradation, and fragmentation due to heavy industries (mining, oil), diversion of forests, and linear infrastructure further contributed to these push factors. While 80 percent of elephant distribution is outside our National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries, the high cultural acceptance and veneration towards elephants have enabled space sharing at these interface areas with people despite high losses on either side.
Approximately 500 people and 100 elephants die each year due to competition over crops and land. A majority of human accidents occur when people are unaware of elephant presence near them or are actively trying to protect their crops from hungry elephants. Elephant deaths are caused by electrocution, railway accidents, poisoning, and in some cases, the use of food bombs. As an unfortunate outcome of the dynamics of human societies, the people who share space with the elephants are often the most deprived economically and yet, have to bear the cost of their conservation.
The elephants, on the other hand, which live in the interface of forests and villages, have grown more and more dependent on crops and fruits due to their high nutritive value and less time required to eat them, compared to searching for edibles in the wild.
Human-wildlife conflicts are as much a matter of perception as actual losses. Whenever perceptions towards a species become negative, even relatively small losses are exacerbated. In the coffee plantations of Hassan and Kodagu, workers refuse to work if elephants are present in the estate; this has led the large estate owners to install fences and restrict the movement of elephants, thereby shifting the problem to unfenced estates and agriculture areas.
In parts of West Bengal, where elephant movement has increased in the last few decades, local people were hysterical. Human deaths spiked sharply since people never saw elephants before and did not know what to do; immense crop losses also ensued. However, over time people have slowly understood elephants, and human fatalities have come down. However, crop losses continue to be a bone of contention between people and elephants.
A similar pattern is emerging in Chhattisgarh as well where human life loss and crop losses have increased suddenly with the arrival of elephant groups from Odisha over time. Following the heavy economic losses, elephant lives have also been lost with a recent spurt of electrocution cases in the central Indian state.
These conflicts become especially severe when there is any loss of human life and urgent preventive efforts are required to minimise such incidents. Similarly, the loss of elephant lives also evokes a strong response from the community as seen in the recent incident involving the female elephant in Kerala. Such rare but extreme incidents, due to their sensational nature, also enjoy disproportionately higher coverage in the media and public discourse.
The way forward
The forest departments are the custodians of our forests and wildlife, even if they are outside the forest boundaries. While this eliminates any jurisdictional challenges to the protection of elephants, the arrangement also precludes useful collaboration with other agencies which may help offset the losses faced by people due to these shared spaces outside forest boundaries. The issues of crop protection, human welfare, crowd control, education, enforcement as well as infrastructure development are intricately tied to the unfortunate outcomes of human-elephant cohabitation.
Crop losses need to be reconciled immediately and efficiently though quick and fair ex-gratia payments, local communities need to be made more aware of personal safety through educational programs, line departments need to collaborate for crowd control during emergencies, development funds are required to install proper lighting and toilet facilities and political leaders need to foster the collaboration between the relevant agencies.
Scientists and ecologists need to identify the core problems which vary highly from place to place depending on the landscape, the communities, and of course the elephants. Conservation organisations need to work with government agencies to gain the trust of local communities and incentivise their efforts to share space with wildlife as well as catalyse collaborations between departments and agencies.
All these factors are required to bring in long term and sustainable conservation of any ‘potentially damaging’ species in a human-use landscape, to minimise challenges and maximize opportunities.
Positive examples of shared spaces between people and elephants need to come to the fore, everyday stories of people and elephants living in the same areas with mutual respect and minimal damage are not hard to find in a country like ours too.
For example, certain communities in West Bengal worship wild elephants as Mahakal “the destroyer”. They have shared space with elephants for centuries and have accepted crop losses with a belief that if elephants feed on their crops, they will get a better harvest next year and any action is taken against them (even claiming ex-gratia payments for the loss) will anger the gods and they will unleash their fury on the people. They often speak to elephants (like a person) and request them to kindly leave some crops for the farmer and also to not harm them.
Also, overall, since elephants ranges overlap with that of people India, the inherent acceptance of their presence has enabled the persistence of the species in these shared landscapes. However, concerted action is required now along with the right know-how and sufficient resources to prevent erosion of the deep acceptance and veneration that our people have for these majestic beasts.
The author Aritra Kshettry is an INSPIRE-Fellow with the Ministry of Science and Technology. He leads the Co-existence project, a research and conservation initiative to foster safer shared spaces between people and wildlife.
Banner image: Concerted action is required along with the right know-how and sufficient resources to prevent erosion of the deep acceptance and veneration that Indian communities have for elephants that share spaces with humans. Photo by Aritra Kshettry.