Resolving conflicts

Resolving conflicts

Jumbos day out in Mysore

We have just branded a juvenile male tusker — all of eight years — a ‘killer,’ a ‘rogue’ on the rampage and, had he been a tiger cub instead of an elephant calf, we would even have tagged him a ‘maneater’ for tasting the blood of a bank ATM guard whom he crushed to death in Mysore city two days ago.

The tusker and his companion had strayed from the wild and were on the run as panicky and surprised crowds of people chased and stoned them until the forest department staff got into the act. The foresters first tranquilised the wild elephants and, with due regard to their young age, did not condemn the trespassers to a life of drudgery in forest camps. Instead, they transported the elephants back to the wild, but not to their original home and herd, which the duo must have yearned for after their traumatic day out.

The animals were translocated to a new location in a different direction from where they had come. Forest officials maintain that the elephants should have no ‘territory problems’ as they are always on the move. But, if the ‘lost’ youngster retraces his steps in a bid to return home, which elephants are known to do, and again gets into human territory, it will be promptly termed as human-elephant conflict.

Had the duo truly been ‘rogues’ wreaking havoc, as widely reported in the media, the wild elephants should have killed and maimed many more people considering the large crowds they encountered during their Mysore sojourn.

With due regard to the aggrieved families of the ATM guard and others injured, the human victims must have been too close to the traumatised tusker for its comfort, which is why it attacked them, believe wildlife conservationists. Known for their gentle and sensitive nature, wild elephants avoid rather than confront human beings in their natural environment.

The more than two-decade long run of elephant poacher and ivory smuggler Veerappan, vandalising the elephant corridors of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu states, is testimony to the fact that elephants are the true victims unless pushed into conflict. Veerappan ultimately fell, not to ‘rogue’ elephants in the wild, but to the police bullets.

The mere presence of a wild elephant cannot be termed a conflict situation as animals often peaceably move through human-use areas, explains wildlife scientist T R Shankar Raman of Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF), Mysore, Recalling the Mysore incident, he says the half-raised tail of the charging tusker calf and it finally finding refuge in a bush near a lake showed that the runaway animal was in a confused and stressed state and was trying to get away from the crowds.

Awareness drive

The lack of awareness among the people about the wild elephants’ presence resulted in the melee and the conflict. In the Valparai plantation district of Coimbatore in neighbouring Tamil Nadu, NCF scientists along with local trackers and forest watchers monitoring elephant movement patterns inform the local people about the presence of wild elephants in a particular estate every evening and even scroll it as news on the local cable network. This awareness drive has partly helped in avoiding man-elephant conflict.
Similarly, elephant conservationists across India have asked the government to form emergency response teams among the local communities, he says. Such a team could have pre-empted the Mysore incident by getting into the act as soon as the elephants were spotted or news of their straying out of the wild reached them.

According to a report by another NCF wildlife scientist, M D Madhusudan, in the 19th century, human activity impacted less than a fifth of the planet’s land area; a mere two hundred years later, we have brought more than 95 per cent of earth’s landmass under our dominion. Trapped between shrunken, degraded habitats and human-occupied landscapes, wide-ranging animals like the Asian elephant have been pushed into conflict with people.

Persecution by affected people and the decline of suitable habitats threaten the long-term survival of elephants. Understanding the ecological and behavioural adaptations of elephants to altered landscapes and the relationships between elephant activity, spatial configuration of human settlements along movement routes, and the effects of people on elephant behaviour are crucial for resolving conflicts and fostering coexistence.

Conflict resolution is especially critical in areas close to wildlife sanctuaries as wild animals seldom recognise administrative boundaries. The Elephant Task Force headed by Dr Mahesh Rangarajan, in its report submitted to the ministry of environment and forests, has recommended conflict management task forces that will work in prior identified areas of high conflict.

Other recommendations include ex gratia relief for loss of human life not to be less than Rs 3 lakh; considering the persistent and common grievance in some areas that officials are not easily accessible to cultivators and other villagers affected by elephant and other wildlife crop damage, public hearings to be held at least twice a year at taluka level; expensive electric fences without involving the local community for maintenance to be discouraged; starting ‘Regional Gajah Centres’ to provide focal points for education and outreach about elephant behaviour, ecology, conservation and the cultures of human-elephant co-existence.

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