Jumbo problem: A collective responsibility

Jumbo problem: A collective responsibility

many elephants are killed in retaliation or due to human activities

It's not just about keeping elephants in the forest, it's also about keeping people out. Credit: AFP Photo

Every year in India, anywhere between 100 to 500 people are killed by elephants (Ministry of Environment and Forests, 2020), and many more lose part of their crops or have their property damaged. Some lodge a complaint and receive compensation from the government, others tolerate the pachyderms' visit. On the other hand, as many elephants are killed in retaliation or due to human activities ( poaching, collisions with trucks or trains, falls in wells, trenches or canals, etc.) Over the years, a number of solutions for the conflict have been implemented singly or in concert with various degrees of success. Still, fatalities occur.

The Forest Department has spent enormous funds and efforts in miles of trenches and fences, which are often damaged by people who want to gain access to the forest to collect wood or to graze livestock. The problem is twofold. It's not just about keeping elephants in the forest, it's also about keeping people out.

In addition, many families—including non-tribal— live permanently inside forests, on small farms or encroachments, monopolising the best grasslands and water sources, thus depriving the elephants of essential resources. To protect their crops, they use firecrackers or throw kerosene torches at the elephants, thus driving them away from the interior of the forest towards the outskirts. Meanwhile, these families live in unconceivable conditions. These families deserve to be allocated an alternative land outside the forest with the necessary facilities. But surprisingly, when they have managed to encroach a large area, some of these families refuse to move out, in hope that the land will one day be granted to them and the situation comes to a deadlock. This example, which is quite common, shows that the first constructive step is to accept that the problem is a collective responsibility.

On the other hand, elephants come out of the forest in search of food when the forest is degraded, attracted by the crops or transit towards a disconnected forest area. With the Aane Mane Foundation, we have studied the movements of free-ranging elephants and experimented with methods to entice them to remain on their own within the perimeter of the forest by using positive reinforcement with a high success rate over the years. 

In 2018-19, the Karnataka Forest Department had used the same monitoring system in Kodagu and Hassan districts to track wild elephants, map their movements and warn the public. The PCCF (CWLW) reported that due to this method, from 18 deaths in 2017, the fatalities came down to one during the course of the program. (DH, May 19, 2019)

This foreshadows the outline of a strategy that would improve the provisions already in place:

Designate reserves according to coherent geography based on elephant movements, equipped with adequate boundary protections where public funds can be concentrated instead of being spread over a multitude of areas. 

Remove encroachments from these reserves and allocate land to the families concerned.

Secure corridors in key locations, most of which have already been identified.

Create a Special Elephant Unit of Forest Officers to coordinate strategy with authority regardless of administrative boundaries.

Capture, relocate and monitor elephants with GPS collars by specialised teams.

Allow researchers to collar elephants and study their movements, considering that if elephant biology is well researched, there is a vast scope to explore behaviour that can be of a huge benefit to the species and its management.

The capable officers are already in the ranks of the Department. The researchers of experience are available in our state. The techniques are known, affordable and at hand. The adequate legislation to implement such a project is already in place. All it takes is one conductor to coordinate the effort, which can only be the government that should take to heart that people and elephants do not continue to kill each other.

(The writer is managing trustee, Aane Mane Foundation)