'Elephant conservation is not exactly anybody’s priority'

M D Madhusudan is an ecologist and conservationist with Nature Conservation Foundation in Mysore, Karnataka. An elephant expert, he is a member of the committee that was set up last year by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests to find ways of giving legal status to elephant reserves in the country. He was also a member of the Karnataka Elephant Task Force set up in 2012 by the Karnataka High Court. He has worked towards understanding and reducing human-elephant conflicts around Bandipur National Park. He speaks to M Suchitra on the complexities of human-elephant conflict and how to go about mitigating it

By M Suchitra
Published: Thursday 20 February 2014

M D MadhusudanIs there an increase in human-elephant conflict?

You’re asking a simple question, but my honest answer would be: I don’t know. We don’t have reliable and sustained data on human-elephant conflicts for most places. What we do have, by and large, are records of money spent by governments in compensating losses sustained by people in conflicts. While these figures indeed appear to be rising, they are often not the best way of finding out if human-elephant conflicts are increasing.

Why are compensation figures not a reliable indicator of increase in conflict?

Compensation figures depend on many things besides the number and intensity of conflict incidents. First, only a fraction of people who experience conflict with elephants seek compensation. Second, not all claims made receive compensations. Further, the rates of compensation can vary state to state and with the nature of conflict depending on whether it involves loss of crops or property, human injury or fatality. All these figures can vary year to year. And finally, the quality of record-keeping on compensations is highly uneven. Therefore, it is difficult to conclude that increasing compensation payments equals increasing conflict.

But there is a general impression that conflict is increasing. Your comments

Yes. There certainly is a perception among many local communities, managers, scientists, politicians and others that conflicts are increasing. However, we don’t fully understand where these perceptions are coming from. Are negative encounters between elephants and humans actually becoming more frequent or more intense? Or are people are simply less willing to share space or less able to share resources with elephants? Either way, I think these perceptions need to be taken seriously.

Can you explain a bit more about what you mean by perceptions?

The way people perceive conflicts usually determines how they respond to them. And these perceptions can vary greatly. A scientist or forester may perceive conflict as a few acres of paddy trampled and a few bags of rice lost. So, handing out a compensation, meagre though it may be, may seem an adequate response to them.

But a farmer may perceive the same incident as a total calamity. Not only would he count the grain he lost, he may also count the days he wilted under the sun to raise the crop. The scores of fearful and sleepless nights he spent on a treetop guarding it. The hundreds of rupees he spent each month buying torch batteries and firecrackers. The looming threat of hunger without his family’s main source of staple. The growing burden of debts to repay, without prospects of any income. And to top it all, the money he has to spend on trips to the forest office, knowing that his claim, at best, will compensate a mere one-tenth to one-fifth of the market value of his loss.

So, what may, to a scientist or forester, be a routine conflict incident with a certain material and monetary loss, may completely miss the human stories that drive farmers to such desperation where they may consider shooting, poisoning or electrocution as proportionate responses. Therefore, we need to be very clear about whose perception of conflict we propose to address through management action.

How complex is this conflict?

Human-elephant conflict may seem simple but it is not. It has ecological, economic, cultural, social, and political strands to it, all of which must be grasped for better management.

The issue of why wild elephants leave their natural habitats, enter human dominated areas, and feed on crops is undoubtedly one with ecological causes and ecological consequences. But, at the same time, there are material and monetary consequences, too. Destruction of one acre (0.4 hectare) of crop-field may have completely different social and economic consequences depending on whether a marginal farmer grew ragi on it to feed his family or someone wealthier cultivated sugarcane on it for the market. Yet you can have two fields under the same crop, experiencing the same loss, but owned by two farmers, one of whom might say he wants to shoot the elephant dead for ruining him, while the other may gracefully suggest that he is merely sharing food with the elephants with whom he must learn to coexist. Why is one tolerant and the other not? This is an issue of culture. But it doesn’t end there.

At times, human- elephant conflict can become a serious issue of human safety, and even law and order. Also, the media, which creates public opinion, may treat the rare instance of an elephant walking into a city as a far greater crisis, while being mostly blind to conflict that hundreds of thousands of farmers around forests endure daily. To top it all, conflict even divides conservationists, some of whom may put elephants before all else, whereas others may feel that it is only by keeping people safe that the safety of elephants can be ensured.

All these diverse strands converge in the perceptions that conflicts are increasing. So, we certainly need to understand and engage with these various concerns. Ten years ago, as an ecologist, I might have suggested that science holds the solutions to conflicts. But today, having engaged as much with farmers and foresters as I have with ecologists and conservationists, I would say the key process for effective and enduring conflict mitigation is a political one. What do you mean by political in this context?

I mean that conflict is a problem that must be understood and addressed in a messy public space, and not in a sanitised academic setting. And given that it perforce involves the concerns of a variety of groups, the only way forward is to try and bring them together. And that is a political process, isn’t it?

Let me take the example of Alur. This region in Hassan district of Karnataka experiences a severe human-elephant conflict. It is a densely populated area dominated by open agriculture and coffee plantations, with virtually no forests. Yet, a group of 25-30 elephants has lived here for over a decade. During this time time, despite a variety of measures to keep people and elephants safe from each other, incidents of conflict have risen, crops are are being destroyed, hundreds of people have been injured and dozens have lost their lives in encounters with elephants, and for their part, elephants too have died. Although there are forests to the west and the south, the elephants go nowhere near those forests and continue to occur in the very places where tens of thousands of people dwell and cultivate. Some years ago, two bulls were captured and released nearly 250 km away, in the Bandipur-Mudumalai area. But they came right back to Alur. What then must be done with Alur’s elephants, and how should it be determined?

Often, I hear people say that science can tell us what must be done. Indeed, science may tell us why elephants might occur in human-dominated areas. It can also tell us how effective interventions such as elephant translocations are in lowering conflict. But science cannot tell us whether the elephants should be allowed to remain there or removed. That’s a larger social choice. And how do we make that choice? I think the process of making that choice must involve a process of public debate and reasoning. The voice of science must surely be heard in such public reasoning, but so must other voices concerned with the well-being of people as well as that of elephants. We need to recognise and leverage this vital democratic space that is available to us all to make collective choices that are both better-informed and inclusive.

You were a member of the Karnataka Elephant Task Force that recommended capturing elephants in extreme cases like Alur and keeping them in captivity. Doesn’t this recommendation violate the ethics of conservation and welfare and care for the animal?

Situations like Alur highlight the serious ethical dilemmas involved in addressing human-elephant conflict. On the one hand, a recommendation, like the Task Force made, to take Alur’s elephants into captivity raises ethical issues concerning the well-being of the elephants. On the other hand, we must accept that, if we chose to let the elephants remain in Alur, there are equally wrenching ethical issues concerning the safety and well-being of tens of thousands of people.

Against this background, you must remember that the mandate of the Task Force was not to undertake philosophical meanderings, but to consider the various aspects of human-elephant conflict in Alur and make actionable recommendations to reduce it. We travelled across the Alur region, where, as I said earlier, there are virtually no forests, and all elephants range across people’s farms, homesteads and coffee estates. We spoke extensively to local people and officials to understand if adequate effort had been made to improve the possibilities of safe coexistence. We saw that over a decade, conflict incidents had increased 20-fold, and the amount paid in compensation had risen 10-fold. Over the last five years, nearly two dozen people and a dozen elephants had perished in encounters with wild elephants. Hundreds were injured.

When I asked a farmer if safe coexistence with elephants was still an option that he was willing to explore, he said, “That is exactly what we have tried for nearly twenty years now, without success. We can’t do it any more.” Then we met a mother of a school-going girl who died in an encounter with a wild elephant between home and school. She asked, “Is it unreasonable I ask that my daughter could go to school within the village without the risk of being trampled by an elephant?” Based on a range of such data and narratives, we felt that the conflict in Alur was indeed extreme. We felt, as had the Government of India’s Gajah Task Force, that extreme measures like capture may be necessary in extreme situations like Alur.

All along, the Task Force was deeply mindful that the process of capture could involve serious risk to the elephants’ lives. They could also be injured in captivity in the process of taming. Even if there were no physical injuries, keeping a wild animal of such intelligence, sociality and sentience such as an elephant in captivity would undoubtedly involve deep mental trauma. For no fault of theirs, the elephants would be sentenced to a lifetime in captivity, and robbed of all dignity. So, we held a public hearing where those concerned about Alur’s elephants and local people concerned for their own life and livelihoods could discuss measures that could potentially address both these concerns. It was quite a telling comment that while villagers from Alur travelled all the way to Bengaluru to attend the hearing and air their views, there was none among the advocates of elephant welfare who attended the hearing to air their views.

You will see in the Task Force’s report that, having stepped through a range of reasonable options to lower conflict in Alur, and having found none, we had no choice but to recommend capture and captivity in the extreme case of Alur’s elephants.

Why cannot the elephants be released in other forests?

Releasing elephants caught from Alur elsewhere poses a whole range of risks and challenges that we felt could not be overcome. Foremost, it was not possible to find a forest where nearby village residents would be willing to “host” Alur’s elephants. Secondly, elephants have complex societies, and there was no guarantee that resident elephant clans at the release site would accept Alur’s elephants within their home ranges. Thirdly, it is not easy for relocated elephants, especially herds with calves, to adjust to a completely new landscape. They lack the knowledge of water and food at the release site. Elephants usually learn this socially from their relatives and elders in the group.

Elephants born outside forests and feeding on crops cultivated by humans may not even recognise edible species in a forest, and may come right out to more familiar agricultural areas, which defeats the purpose of translocation. Finally, elephants have strong homing instincts and may try to trek back to Alur, which can pose serious risks both to the people living in their path and to the elephants themselves. So, moving elephants into a distant forest does not ensure that the animals can acclimatise, adapt and settle there.

Has there been adequate research on this?

Yes, in Sri Lanka and across Africa. In Sri Lanka, elephant herds were driven into forests from cultivated landscapes and fences were put up to prevent them from leaving the place. Yet, the herds with access to large areas of forests with food and water did not venture inside, presumably because resident herds may have resisted the presence of the new animals. So, these animals mostly remained near the fences along the forest edge, did not move into the forests, and eventually, began dying of starvation.

There’s data from Alur, too, where ecologist Ajay Desai helped the Karnataka Forest Department monitor two translocated elephants. Radio collars placed on two bulls captured from Alur and released in Bandipur-Mudumalai showed that they returned to Alur within a few weeks. Even if they didn’t come back to Alur, they could settle in other cultivated landscapes and create problems there. That would be like relocating conflicts from Alur to other place, which is certainly not wise.

Elephant is a species protected under law. How can we make their conservation more effective?

In India, our laws protect the elephant in two ways. The first way is to protect the species from direct persecution. So, it is illegal to hurt or kill an elephant. The second approach is to protect the land on which the animal occurs. So we create wildlife reserves where the elephant’s habitat is protected. All seems fine as long as this legally protected species remains within a wildlife reserve. The moment it steps outside a wildlife reserve, especially into cultivated and settled areas, the scenario changes because our laws also guarantee humans certain rights. The right to life, the right to livelihood, and rights to property.

This leaves us with the question of which law should prevail in a situation such as in Alur, where the elephant, a legally protected species, occurs on lands where people are legally entitled to use for their needs.

This creates is sticky problem for elephant conservation. So, I think it would help if we could decide explicitly where we want to prioritise elephants and where we want to prioritise humans. That’s why we suggested a three-zone approach. First, a zone for elephant conservation, second, a zone where humans get priority and elephants must be removed, and a third zone, where situations are complex enough that it may be necessary to actively enable safe co-existence between elephants and humans. I believe such an approach is not only practical but also reasonable, and would considerably brighten the elephants’ conservation prospects.

Many say we need a National Elephant Conservation Authority just like the authority for tigers as a first step towards giving more protection to elephants?

That would be very nice of course, but given our federal structure, why must a state wait for the Centre to create such an agency. There is nothing which prevents the states from taking the first step if it is committed to conserving elephants. Every state has a wildlife board that is legally empowered to act to further wildlife conservation. State wildlife boards could seize the initiative and create a state-level authority around a long-term vision to conserve elephants. In fact, the Karnataka Task Force recommended such a panel in Karnataka to make conservation and management plans and advice and assist the government. Unfortunately, the state did not see this as a progressive move. So, right now elephant conservation is everybody’s priority which is another way of saying that it is not exactly anybody’s priority.

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