With human-elephant conflict taking more lives on both sides, stakeholders are split over a sustainable solution
Between 2015 & 2018, more than 1,700 people and 370 elephants have died due to this conflict.
“I was scared for my life,” says the 60-year-old farmer, spry enough to reenact his narrow escape some hours later at his home in Sakaleshpur taluk. Shashidhar, his son, chips in. “We are constantly on the lookout for elephants. And unless it is really necessary, we have stopped going out after 5 pm.”
The other day, when he went to a farmers’ meet, his family was on the edge till he returned home around 1 am.
This is Hassan district, the ground zero of human-elephant conflict in Karnataka.
In December last year, farmers here, including Shashidhar, staged a week-long agitation against crop damage by elephants.
The predominantly coffee-growing region, also the pocket borough of former prime minister HD Deve Gowda, is often in the news for human-elephant conflicts. A loss of human life due to elephants triggers highway blockades and demands for the capture of the animal. There are nearly 35 wild elephants in just three taluks of Hassan, including Sakaleshpur.
Between 2013 and 2014, 22 wild elephants were captured from this area in one of the largest operations of its kind based on the Karnataka Elephant Task Force’s recommendations to the Karnataka High Court.
Even today, when someone dies in an elephant encounter, the demand for capturing the animals resurfaces. Under pressure, the state forest department catches one or two elephants, though these may not be the ones that caused the death. The situation then eases till the next crop damage, injury or death caused by elephants.
Karnataka has the highest number of wild elephants in the country, numbering more than 6,000.
But human-elephant conflict is not restricted to this state. From 2015 to December 31, 2018, 1,713 people and 373 elephants died due to these conflicts in different states, the environment, forests and climate change ministry told Parliament in February. West Bengal saw the most number of human deaths at 307, followed by Odisha with 305 deaths. A fews days back, in Bihar’s Supaul district, five people were reportedly killed after a wild elephant rampaged through several villages.
India is home to most of the Asiatic elephants and rising incidents of conflicts have become a source of worry for governments, conservationists and people living close to the wild animals. Loss of natural habitat and fragmentation have been bringing wild elephants closer to human habitations, sparking these conflicts.
“In the 1980s, the estimate was that elephants were killing around 100 people a year. Now, it is over 400. There is no doubt conflicts are increasing,” says Ajay Desai, a wildlife scientist, who has been on various government panels on elephants, and is a consultant with the World Wildlife Fund.
There are also region-specific variations. Southern Bengal is a classic case of how the problem was allowed to grow, he says.
Elephants in the 200-square-km Dalma sanctuary near Jamshedpur kept moving to nearly villages where there was paddy, despite being chased away by villagers. Their area of movement also began expanding. Around the same time in the early 1990s, a forestry programme in Bengal unwittingly offered shelter to these elephants, making the region a host to a resident elephant population along with a migrant elephant population.
Aritra Kshettry, a wildlife scientist working in northern Bengal, says that since the area’s landscape is fragmented, elephants move between one region and another to fulfil their ecological needs, increasing the frequency of run-ins with people.
“This is also a tribal belt, and alcoholism is rampant. Based on my research, more than 80% of those who died after an encounter with elephants were inebriated and trying to away chase the animals. The situation is said to be similar in Odisha and Jharkhand,” Kshettry told ET Magazine.
Last November, the Supreme Court questioned the West Bengal government’s stand that using fire torches was the only way to reduce human-elephant conflicts. In the same hearing, additional solicitor general ANS Nadkarni told the top court that the central government had agreed to the idea of setting up a task force to deal with the situation.
Three Solutions So Far
While there is consensus that the conflicts are increasing, how to deal with the problem has divided the community of wildlife experts.
Some, like Desai, favour capture and relocation in certain situations. “Otherwise, people will start taking things into their own hands.”
Areas such as Hassan, he says, do not offer much forest cover to elephants and hence the animals need to be relocated from there.
Desai, who was on the task force in Karnataka that recommended elephant capture, says the problem persists because only half of the elephant population was caught.
But other experts believe capturing elephants is not the answer, and that conflict management is possible through the collective effort of locals, forest departments and conservationists.
Among them is M Ananda Kumar of Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF). The wildlife scientist pioneered an SMS-based early warning system in Valparai, a tea-growing region in Tamil Nadu, to reduce such conflicts by alerting villagers daily about movement of elephants.
Following its success in reducing the number of deaths in the region, Kumar, a winner of the Whitley Award for conservation, began trying it out in Hassan. In 2014, his team examined every death caused by elephants in three worst-affected taluks in Hassan since 1999.
They found that most of the deaths were caused by unexpected encounters with elephants. More than 65% of such run-ins happened between 6-10 am and 4-8 pm, indicating there was a case for a warning system.
Vinod Krishnan, a research affiliate with NCF, began tracking elephants in the area, going out every day and marking locations using global positioning system. Villagers were to call a number if there were elephants in their area. Gradually, an informant network was built. In 2017, he began sending out bulk SMSes and voice messages daily to villagers about where elephants had been spotted so they would know which areas to avoid.
NCF also installed five digital display boards at strategic locations that run scrolls in Kannada about elephants in the vicinity, and eight GSM-based alert lights that are turned on if elephants are around.
But winning locals’ trust was not easy. “They would question me about my motives and ask if I could help them get compensation,” says Krishnan. He needed the proverbial patience of the very animal he was tracking to stay on course. Once, a villager summoned him to his house at 4 am amidst heavy rain saying there was an elephant outside. “When I got there, he told me the elephant had left. I realised I was being tested.” But from that day, the villager became one of Krishnan’s most reliable informants.
Five years later, the NCF team’s efforts now extend to 206 villages across 500 square km.
In the last one year, the Karnataka forest department has put up five more display boards and introduced rapid response teams. The number of human deaths in the Hassan area has fallen from seven in 2014 to two in 2018.
Currently, prototypes of “optical fences”, developed by GR Jayanth of the Indian Institute of Science in Bengaluru, are being tested. The solar-powered device transmits a laser beam with a range of 250 metres. When breached, this triggers an SMS alert and an alarm at the farmers’ houses, giving them time to react. But the farmers would need to be guided so that the elephants are not chased away into other areas, says Kumar of NCF.
Sanjai Mohan, Karnataka’s principal chief conservator of forests (wildlife), told ET Magazine tech interventions have helped reduce human-elephant conflict in Hassan. “We have collared a female elephant and we are able to warn people about the herd’s movement.”
While lauding NCF’s early warning system, Mohan says a growing elephant population poses a challenge, since there is limited habitation area. “Though elephant corridors have been identified, acquiring the land needed for it is a very slow, costly process. But ultimately, it will have to happen.”
Cultivation on Hold
Karunakaran, one of the farmers trying out the optical fence in his paddy field, says the government is not doing enough about the elephant situation.
“I’m trying to avoid growing crops that attract elephants,” says the farmer, who has filed for compensation.
Coffee estate owners KS Bopaiya and Nalini Bopaiya too have stopped cultivating paddy or fruits. “We hardly saw elephants in our estate earlier. But now, sightings are common. We’ve stopped socialising in the evenings; children here no longer walk to school and our relatives hesitate to visit us,” says Nalini Bopaiya.
Fear, rather than anger, is the predominant sentiment among locals. “Earlier, we used to see elephants so infrequently that we used to worship the one we saw. That’s all changed,” says Mamta Dharmaprakash, whose family grows coffee and paddy in Sakaleshpur.
Locals appreciate NCF’s early warning system. “At least now we get to know where the elephants are. Their information network is very accurate,” says Pritham NS, owner of a 100-acre coffee plantation.
But when asked about what they think might be a solution to reduce the conflicts with elephants, most still hark back to capturing elephants. “It is tough for people and elephants to coexist,” says Pritham.
NCF’s Kumar says the only way capturing elephants can resolve the conflict in Hassan is if the entire Nilgiris biosphere is emptied of its 6,000-odd pachyderms. “Is that possible? Otherwise, we can’t wish away elephants from this area. If some elephants are removed, others will take their place,” he says.
Kumar is hopeful that people in Hassan will come around to the notion that they can live with elephants. “We may say elephants need to stay in forests but the animals may think otherwise.”
Sri Lanka: Trials are on to protect crops from elephants with seasonal solar-powered electric fences, under the guidance of scientist Prithviraj Fernando from the Centre of Conservation and Research. These are part-funded by the villagers and maintained by them during crop season, to prevent depredation.
Kenya: Farmers are taking the help of the aggressive African honeybee to protect their crops from elephants. With the help of researcher Lucy King, they set up beehive fences of interlinked hive which, when disturbed, releases the bees which sting the elephants. Around 80% of elephants have been kept at bay in the region using this method.
Hassan: Ground Zero
In 2013-14, following the submission of a report by the Karnataka Elephant Task Force to Karnataka High Court, 22 elephants were removed from Alur taluk in Hassan. However, in the subsequent years, the elephant population in the area has returned to 30-35.
Non-profit Nature Conservation Foundation stated working in 3 taluks in Hassan in 2014 following the capture of elephants. They have implemented an early warning system, which includes:
- Bulk SMS: SMSes & voice messages are sent daily to locals about presence of elephants in their area. Information is based on regular tracking
- Display Boards: Digital display boards at 5 sites run tickers in the evening about the movements of elephants in the area.
- Alert Lights: GSM-based alert lights at 8 strategic locations are turned on when elephant sightings in the region are reported.
- Optical Fencing: A pilot is under way to reduce crop damage by using laser beams in fields which, when breached by elephants, will send alerts and enable farmers to react.