Through drawings and accompanying narratives, social science researchers have analysed children’s perceptions of human-elephant interactions in an Odisha district where communities deal with resident and migratory herds.Researchers said crop-raiding and breaking of houses emerged as key human-elephant conflict concerns in the children’s drawings. Their curiosity towards elephants and their migratory behaviour could be tapped to design conservation strategies.Large elephant herds from Dalma Wildlife Sanctuary in Jharkhand have been visiting Nilagiri area in Odisha’s Balasore district since 2010 in search of paddy, suspect researchers and foresters.Calling for securing identified elephant corridors, experts said the migration to this part of the state is due to development of linear infrastructure that has blocked known migratory routes of the elephants along the Jharkhand-Odisha border. A pencil sketch shows an elephant trying to dismantle a thatched roof. Another depicts a pachyderm helping itself to succulent sugarcane stalks from a farm as people brandish fire torches to chase it away. One deftly tears away a palm tree into two. With the flick of a pencil, school children in Odisha’s Balasore district produced 29 sketches displaying their perceptions of human-elephant conflict and co-existence in an area where communities are in crosshairs of conflict with resident and migratory elephants from neighbouring states. “When we engaged children through drawing technique we realised that apart from showcasing their experiences of human-elephant interactions, their illustrations and scribbles reveal a certain degree of curiosity about elephants which could be leveraged to design conservation tools targeting children,” said research scholar Medha Nayak, of School of Humanities and Social Sciences, National Institute of Science Education and Research (NISER), Bhubaneswar, Odisha. As many as 29 students of the ninth grade of Padmalochan Mundahana High School in coastal Balasore district’s Jadibali village in the Nilagiri subdivision participated in an activity to understand children’s perceptions of human-elephant interactions. The critical factors for human-elephant conflict (HEC) that emerged in the students’ artwork are crop-raiding and breaking of houses, reflecting the ground reality. In Jadibali, communities repeatedly deal with elephant movement between Jharkhand and Odisha and the resident herd, that often result in conflicts when marauding herds raid crops. Balasore harbours 97 elephants in its 282 square km area demarcated as Kuldiha Wildlife Sanctuary (WLS). Kuldiha is part of the Mayurbhanj Elephant Reserve, one of the three elephant reserves in the state. Additionally, elephants visit Balasore from neighbouring states (West Bengal and Jharkhand) and occupy forest patches, mostly during the harvest seasons. Social science researchers analysed children’s perceptions of human-elephant interactions in an Odisha district that hosts resident and migratory elephants. Through analysis of 29 sketches, crop-raiding and breaking of houses emerged as key concerns. Photo from Medha Nayak. Since 2010, large elephant herds (more than 100 individuals) have unfailingly marched from Jharkhand’s Dalma Wildlife Sanctuary to the Nilagiri area in Balasore district through West Bengal in November each year, in quest of paddy, through areas outside protected areas. The researchers selected Jadibali as the study site as it is one of the pockets where migratory elephants lingered for the maximum number of days in their sojourn and people come across elephants on a regular basis because of their dependence on paddy cultivation or on the collection of non-timber forest produce.“Both of which make them vulnerable to elephants and are largely hindered by the visit of migratory elephants,” Nayak said. Nayak and study co-author Pranay Swain, professor in School of Humanities and Social Sciences, emphasised that “only a few research studies have analysed perceptions of local communities and even fewer have considered the future stakeholders – the children.” The drawings were analysed with the MAXQDA software to understand human-elephant interactions in Odisha. The analysis is in a preprint archive. Developing conservation education tools for children, youth “Developing suitable tools of conservation education to promote sustainable human-elephant interactions is important as discontent among young children was evident and it could further erode the future stakeholders’ traditional and cultural connections that contributes to protecting wildlife,” said Nayak adding that while depictions of suggestions were few, “the students wanted to know more about the migratory patterns and were eager to mitigate the issue.” Radhika Iyengar of Columbia University‘s Centre for Sustainable Development, who was not associated with the research, said the work on children’s perceptions towards human-elephant conflict and coexistence shows that compassion and empathy towards the planet need to be a core part of school education. “The treatment of environmental education in formal schools is abysmal across the globe. Many policies are in place to introduce environmental education in formal curriculums. India has shown a commitment to the environment cause prioritising environmental education reflected in the mandate by the Supreme Court dating back to 1991,” Iyengar said. She adds that subsequently, in 2003, the government tasked the National Council of Educational Research and Training to produce extensive content on environmental education. “The result was over 300 million students in 1.3 million schools receiving some form of environmental education training as of 2015. However, many textbooks are disconnected from the immediate reality and environmental context that the student faces,” Iyengar told Mongabay-India. “During the COVID-19 pandemic, we saw wildlife taking over roads, ponds, canals, and much more. Johan Rockstrom, a renowned scientist, has presented his framework on planetary boundaries. How could humans respect the planetary boundaries and recognise that humans co-exist with millions of other living forms. The framework is a useful tool to realise the vast amount of destruction caused by humans. It will help to put a perspective on the destruction shown in the drawings by the youth,” she explained. Odisha, with Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, and part of southern West Bengal forms the central Indian elephant habitat at times extending to Madhya Pradesh and Bihar. This landscape is spread over an area of 21,000 sq km and supports 3128-odd elephants. The central Indian habitat is the most fragmented and degraded elephant habitat in the country due to encroachment, shifting cultivation, and mining, states the Right of Passage report. Human-elephant conflict is very high in the central Indian landscape and although the area supports less than 10 percent of the elephant population of the country, it accounts for almost 45 percent of all human deaths due to elephants in India. The report identifies a minimum of 101 elephant corridors as currently in use in India, and seven corridors that were previously identified were found to have been impaired in the last decade. There are 25 corridors in central India. Almost 47.5 percent of the corridors have a protected area (PA) at one or both ends, or lie within a PA. Analysis of sketches of human-elephant interaction revealed a level of discontent among children. Compassion and empathy towards our planet need to be a core part of school education said, experts. Photo from Medha Nayak. Pachyderms move across landscapes but not every path is a corridor “While the Dalma to Balasore route is not a recognised corridor, every migratory route is important in terms of elephant conservation as 80 percent of the elephant population in India roams outside protected areas,” Sandeep Tiwari, program manager, IUCN SSC Asian Elephant Specialist Group and one of the authors of the report, told Mongabay-India. Elephant corridors are linear, narrow, natural habitat linkages that allow elephants to move between secure habitats without being disturbed by humans. Tiwari explained that it has to connect two viable habitats that can sustain an animal in that area. “The elephants should be using it for at least 7-10 yrs to call it a corridor (basically for a long time and not one of). Just because an animal moves from point A to B, doesn’t mean it’s a corridor. We need to look at why they are moving-are they moving between two habitats or are they moving from available habitat to sink (could be to an area to raid crops in certain seasons),” said Tiwari. Balasore district’s former divisional forest officer (DFO) Harsha Bardhan Udgata, who is acknowledged in the report had meticulously documented the comings and goings of the pachyderms from Jharkhand to Odisha from 2013 to 2015. Udgata suspects the elephants switched their migratory routes due to infrastructure development which interfered with their known path and that Dalma with its 194 square km area is not able to sustain a large elephant population. A sketch by a child in Odisha’s Balasore district about human-elephant interactions read: “To meet the demands of escalating human population, the forests lands are being damaged. Hence, elephants are coming to nearby villages and also raiding crops. In order to prevent this, planting a lot of trees must be our priority.” Photo from Medha Nayak. Writing in the Odisha Review in July, 2014, Udgata said, elephants of Sundargarh district in Odisha visit Jharkhand and similarly, elephants from Jharkhand and West Bengal migrate to bordering districts of Odisha like Sundargarh, Mayurbhanj and Balasore. This interstate migration of elephants has now been extended to a longer distance up to Nilagiri of Balasore district, perhaps due to certain major disturbances in and around their original habitat at Dalma. “The construction of the irrigation canal on the Subarnarekha river and the National Highway between Kharagpur (in Bengal) and Ranchi (Jharkhand) blocked the herds from moving into other areas of Odisha and West Bengal. They come in large numbers to Nilagiri,” Udgata said. The animals start from Dalma sanctuary in October, reach Nilagiri in November, stay for nearly a month and then return to West Bengal by January of next year. They stay in Bengal during the summer. A small group visits Nilagiri again during April and returns to Bengal, he said. The herds need both forest patches and paddy fields which Balasore offers in abundance. On reaching Nilagiri, the elephants shelter in forest patches such as the sal forests of Ajodhya and Tinkosia reserve forests during the day and at night they raid crops in fringe villages. “Their main intention is to go for the unripened crops in the villages. The reserve forest patches are dense and have good food for the elephants. But they still raid crops and break houses because they have developed a taste for it and it is easy food. Just as fast food is to humans,” pointed out Udgata. Udgata carried out interventions in consultation with the local community. “We dug trenches between the forest patch and the village and in 2014 we saw the elephants only stayed for seven days and then moved on. Since they had come a long way and their target was grain, they were not interested in what the forest had to offer, so they left,” said Udgata. However, Udgata warned that the elephant movement to the Nilagiri area is inevitable and if one attempts to drive them out or prevent them from gaining access to the area, more damage will ensue. “In places where there is no legal protection, you can’t control 110 elephants without getting the local community on board,” said Udgata commending Medha Nayak’s work to understand community perceptions. The Odisha state government has recently issued revised guidelines to monitor the movement of elephants to rein in escalating HEC.