A happy coexistence with elephants is not an Utopian thought. All we need are self-guarding practices, which benefit both the humans and the large mammals, says Prachi Mehta.
Since last two decades, the intensity of conflict between human and elephant has been a growing problem and is a cause for serious concern.
This conflict takes away resources from both the parties involved – humans suffer social and economic setback due to crop damage, while elephants suffer the ire of local communities, often being electrocuted and killed.
Elephants are keystone species for the large landscapes and securing their habitat will help in protecting a bigger gamut of biodiversity and environment in the region. It is, therefore, crucial to institutionalise effective conflict mitigation management practices.
India has about 27,000 to 30,000 elephants distributed within 18 states of the country. This accounts for about 60 percent of the world’s Asian elephant population. However, having large elephant population also invites some serious problems.
Every year, about 400 human deaths, 150 property damage cases and several lakh tons of damaged crops are attributed to elephants. In retaliation, more than 100 elephants are killed by people through electrocution, poaching and poisoning.
One of the main instances of conflict is the raiding of fields by the jumbos. There are multiple reasons for that. For example, there is considerable encroachment on forest land for agricultural expansion in North Kanara district. This has led to shrinking of habitat for wildlife. Weed infestation and removal of green bamboo for commercial uses reduces the food sources for the elephants.
Moreover, new and upcoming sugarcane factories in Haliyal have attracted many farmers to take up sugarcane cultivation and sugarcane is a major attractant for the elephants. But above all, unguarded fields appeal the most to the jumbos.
Crop raiding by elephants continues
despite huge investments on resources and research studies. The onus of dealing with human-elephant conflict is on the local forest department in almost all affected areas. The farmers are entirely dependent on the local forest staff for conflict mitigation.
Commonly adopted methods are construction of Elephant Proof Trenches (EPT) or installing electric fences around the boundary of the forest area, translocating elephants to another area or domesticating them. But most of these measures have proved to be effective for a short duration only.
Physical barriers like EPTs or electric fences require regular maintenance but in almost all cases, this condition is not followed strictly, making it easy for elephants to cross the barriers. Translocating the elephants has resulted in the large mammals returning to their original location soon and domestication has proved to be ineffective in reducing the conflict.
To help deal with such difficulties, in 2009, the concept of community-based management of elephant conflict (CBCM) in North Kanara district of Karnataka was introduced. A long-term initiative of Wildlife Research and Conservation Society (WRCS), this project was initiated in Haliyal and Yellapur divisions with the support of Asian Elephant Conservation Fund (AECF), USFWS.
Going the traditional way
Many a times, it has been observed that unguarded fields act like open invitations for the elephants. Prevention is always better than cure and thus, guarding crop fields is safer than chasing elephants. The main aim was to motivate farmers in practicing crop guarding using low-cost local techniques.
Consequently, the practices of night guarding, sitting on mada (tree watchtowers), trip alarms, chilly smoke, chilly curtain, chilly dung cake, catapult bomb, rotating fire ball and beehive fences were introduced.
The trip alarms and chilly smoke is currently being used in a few places of Assam also. The beehive fences are used largely in Kenya and to some extent in Nepal also. Plantation of non-attractive crops such as tea, tobacco, medicinal plants, spices, sesame, chilli, citrus and aromatic oil producing species of Patchouli (in Assam) have also been employed.
If elephants and people have to co-exist the adverse impact of each other’s presence should be minimised. This is possible only if local farmers can effectively protect their crops from the elephants and thereby, don’t perceive elephants as a threat to their social and economical status.
An integrated approach that will demonstrate to the farmers the cost-benefit ratio of self-guarding and its effectiveness in reducing crop loss will encourage them to get involved in the process. Generating options for enhancing the income for local farmers can also help in reducing high social and economic costs of living with wildlife.
Fortunately, from 2009-2014, about 400 farmers have adopted the low-cost crop protection measures and have been successful in protecting their crops from the elephants.
Collaborative efforts have been giving positive results. During the crop-raiding seasons, elephant chasing operations are carried out regularly with the Karnataka Forest Department. The results of field trips are shared with senior forest officers for an updated progress. Media is also a very important stakeholder as it plays a vital role in generating awareness on vital conservation issues.
In 2013, around 75 farmers from the study area were interviewed to assess the impact of the crop protection measures being promoted by WRCS. Out the total number, 40 percent farmers reported no crop damage due to use of crop protection methods, 40 percent farmers reported reduced crop loss after using the measures while 20 percent farmers were those who incurred crop damage as they did not use any crop protection measures.
The initiative also recorded the numbers of elephants in the study area. Around 36 individual elephants from the study area for the year October 2013-February 2014 were identified. This is the very first confirmed record of North Kanara elephants.
Out of the 36 elephants, there are 24 females and 12 males. Of the 36 individuals, 17 are adult females, 1 is sub-adult female, 3 juvenile females, 3 juvenile female calves, 7 adult males, 4 sub-adult males and 1 male calf.
To generate greater awareness amongst the public, short videos of 1.5 minutes have also been created. These videos are readily available on Whatsapp and Youtube and can be accessed at www.youtube/nBWPTEvjyeo (English version) and www.youtube/xpjy86e4JAY (Kannada version). Printed guides that explain the low-cost crop guarding methods are also available. The methods are self-explanatory and can be implemented by the farmers independently without having to depend on the Forest Department or any NGO.
The co-existence of humans and elephants is not a dream and can be achieved with such ingenious methods.
(The author is a wildlife scientist at Wildlife Research and Conservation Society, Pune.)