Wildlife & Biodiversity

Deep dive: Science alone cannot provide solutions to human-elephant interactions in South India; here’s how

Government departments, nonprofits and scientists must work together to advance inclusive policies without discounting the urgency for scientists to share their study results

By Gana Kedlaya
Published: Friday 07 April 2023
A representative photo from iStock showing an elephant capture

He is a tuskless male (makhna) of about 45 years. Let’s christen him ‘Rare’.

He was captured from Dharmapuri, Tamil Nadu and translocated to the Anamalai Tiger Reserve in February 2023. He was monitored for 10 days post-release.

Rare, as an elephant, has a natural tendency to move back to his home range, despite being aware of the risks involved. For he will have to explore new routes that will put him in contact with humans, fences and traffic.

Rare was resolute. He walked back, covering 100 kilometres in just two days. Cases of interactions in his home range were reported again post February 21.

Rare was radio-collared and translocated again. However, he spent an agonising, life-threatening 24 hours on a truck travelling 200 km. He was to be released in Eluthukkal Puthur, but when the team arrived there, the locals protested. The same occurred at Mulli forest.

He was finally released in the reserve forest between Manombally-Varakaliyar. He was last spotted drinking water and walking into new territory after a harrowing experience that further leaves one wondering about the impact of this trauma on Rare’s already vulnerable spirit.

Rare’s story is not uncommon. This year alone, several of his peers with just numbers for names or fear-inducing adjectives have been captured from all across the country. 

The story of capture 

As human-elephant interactions (HEI) increase across landscapes, using translocation as a mitigation measure has seen a steep rise across India.

While people face threats to life, livelihood and severe anxieties from these interactions, it’s essential to address the state of the equally defenseless party to this crisis — the elephants.

“There is immense pressure from locals post an interaction — be it raids, or in some cases, human death. The only solution they seek now is removing the animal,” says a Karnataka forest department official.

With mobile phones and CCTV cameras, it’s become easier for locals to capture visuals of elephants in farmlands or the vicinity.

When interactions increase, or an untoward incident occurs, the images of elephants frequenting the lands are shared, and their removal is demanded. The captures are frequent and ad hoc. In most cases, there is no proof of the elephant being responsible for the incident before capture.

The largest or older males are often picked. “Males are captured and the matriarchs are radio-collared,” adds the forest official. But, there is evidence of how older males act as repositories of knowledge and, at times, discipline younger males.

Elephant behavioural ecologist Dr Nishant Srinivasaiah adds, “The lack of mature adult males may have behavioural implications for younger individuals who then grow up in an environment without role models to learn from,” further adding that translocating young naturally dispersing males using scientific techniques of translocation such as soft release with close monitoring of the translocated individuals may be better — enabling possibilities to form associations with groups that are not necessarily crop-raiding.

Another researcher, preferring anonymity, adds, “Not all large males or older elephants are aggressive. We’ve observed several males have remained docile most of their lives, even around humans. They often, unfortunately, get picked up during capture operations just for their size.”

Capturing an elephant is expensive and risky. In some recent cases like Operation Black, an attempt to capture elephant Karuppan involved three kumkis, three earthmovers and nearly 100 personnel on ground (The first attempt failed after Karuppan, darted thrice with tranquilisers, ventured into the forest. An attempt is being made again).

“These operations are expensive. Excluding payments for staff, just the tranquillisation cost and the transport of kumkis and the captured elephant costs over a lakh,” according to a forest official. Such operations have also led to injuries to staff and kumkis.

At times, the death of the captured elephant — sometimes, from accidents (like in the case of an elephant in Coorg, post tranquillisation, while running, fell from a height of 35 feet) and sometimes, from possible reaction to the medicine dose itself, since decisions for captures are swift, leaving less time for investigating the animal’s health before capture.

“The vets and darters have very little time before tranquilising an animal. The elephant may seem healthy and fit on the outside, but it’s impossible to ascertain its complete health condition — sometimes resulting in incidents post tranquillisation,” says Dr Thammaiah, Project Associate, Management of species involved in Human-Wildlife conflict, Wildlife Institute of India (WII).

Many tagged as repeat offenders and returned translocated elephants are slated for permanent captivity — A long, distressing process of mentally and physically breaking a wild elephant (kept in kraals) into submission. The same wild elephant is trained as kumkis — used in operations to capture other wild elephants and rescue injured or trapped ones. 

Where to next?

Recently, a radio-collared elephant was translocated to Bandipur and locals were unhappy with the move. Though radio-collaring a captured animal before release provides data on its movement, this has also led to villagers now being able to identify elephants they claim do not belong to their area.

Going forward, choosing a site of release will be a challenge (radio-collared or not), for locals fear loss from possible newer interactions.

What of captivity? “Camps cannot host many elephants — we are running out of space. Wild elephants take at least a year to be fully tamed, and we don’t have enough kraals,” says a Karnataka forest official. Making kraals is expensive too, sometimes costing up to Rs 10 lakh for a single one.

Radio-collaring evidence shows that a small percentage of the translocated elephants in India adjust to their new release area. But calling it a success story is premature.

Studies across the globe state metrics such as self-sustaining population establishment and viability as indicators for successful translocation. The recommended time frame to measure the same is a minimum of four years.

Post-release monitoring in India is limited to a few weeks, scarcely months. With radio collaring, even those that are not translocated, data on movements may be limited to less than four years.

“Most of our radio collars last an average of 3 years, sometimes more, depending on how we tune it for delivering locations,” adds Dr Thammaiah.  

The science ignored 

In Hassan, the removal of elephants is not new — since the 1970s, over 75 elephants have been captured and removed. Despite removal, the numbers in Hassan today are estimated to be over 50.

The late Dr Ajay Desai, spoke of two elephants translocated from Hassan in 2010 and their return to their home range.

“There is evidence that at least 60% of the translocated elephants come back to home ranges post-release,” confirms DCF, AT Poovaiah, Madikeri.

Recently, a radio-collared elephant in Hassan was translocated to MM Hills. “The elephant attempted to return to its home range by passing the Mysore-Bengaluru highway. We captured him again for permanent captivity,” adds Dr Thammaiah.

Across the globe, there is ample evidence of this pattern, also of aggressive behaviour manifested by few translocated elephants, possibly due to physio-psychological effects post-capture.

For example, PM2 was radio-collared and released from Valavayal to Mudumalai. A month after the release, he was involved in interactions in Sulthan Bathery, Kerala and is now put in a kraal.

Most research also points towards the colonisation by other elephants — a pattern observed in Hassan, where despite the removal of several elephants, the population has been on the rise.

Strangely, besides a handful of technical reports on captures and radio-collaring of elephants, there are no scientific reports or long-term studies in India. There is no said framework of reference, adaptability or success story.

The WII has a report on their work of radio-collaring elephants (28 individuals, of which eight were translocated) in Karnataka since 2019. The team confirmed that the draft is ready but is yet to be shared with the forest department or made public.

The other side

With elections coming up, some politicians are threatening to shoot elephants entering farmlands and others total removal. However, politicians across states have promised other solutions in the past decade — corridor connectivity, habitat restorations and adoption of diverse cropping patterns, most of which still need to be met.

While promising connectivity, constructions of large-scale (railway) barricades are being funded too — which in fragmented landscapes have proven to impact elephant movement negatively, resulting in interactions compounding in other areas.

In Kodagu and Hassan, most locals described the issue as ‘your’ elephants in ‘our’ landscape. “There are constant negative interactions because the department rarely maintains the fences” was a common protest across landscapes.

Increasing compensation does not cut it, say many. “The compensation for a banana plant with a very short lifespan is almost the same as a coffee plant that lasts close to 150 years. How does this help? Also, calling this ex gratia payment doesn’t count when loss from crop damage is almost daily. Interactions have only increased over the years and so has corruption. There is a lot of mismanagement,” says senior advocate Hema Chandra, a resident of Siddapura.

When asked about capture as a solution, he adds, “We would support a better option if provided, but there hasn’t been one. Few elephants are now residents on certain farmlands in Coorg. They have even given birth to calves on these lands. They don’t venture into forests, nor will their young ones. Can we still call them wild? We do connect with nature and wildlife. The tragic sight of elephants swimming in the water for hours to evade capture several years ago still haunts me.”

No one solution

In a recent study in Peninsular Malaysia, where translocation is the primary strategy for HEI mitigation, with over 600 elephants translocated since 1974, the authors show that “human-dominated landscapes are prime elephant habitat, and not merely marginal areas that elephants use in the absence of other options,” insisting against elephant translocation.

On the other hand, petitions are being filed against capturing a few select elephants, some demanding release of captured individuals too. But such drives for the welfare of single individuals might be counterproductive.

Researchers assert that if evidence of frequent interactions by an individual elephant is legit, demanding protection of the animal by activists might have negative conservation implications. It can antagonise locals further against the animal and puts the forest department at risk, who face the locals daily.

The need for habitat management and connectivity remains critical. “We are looking at opening more corridors in over three different areas in Coorg to ensure connectivity and movement to elephants. We are in talks with the private landholders for the same,” says AT Poovaiah.

Senior scientist Dr Divya Vasudev in her new study, insists on looking at solutions combined with context-specific long-term strategies to allow movement while minimising conflict. “Habitat consolidation and pausing further loss and fragmentation of habitat is the key,” she adds.

Intricate social relationships are critical to elephants, formed over long life spans, where knowledge transmission occurs. The constant stress in human-dominated landscapes also impacts animals like humans — resulting in reduced foraging activities from increased vigilance behaviours, impacting decision-making capabilities, sometimes leading to inter-generational effects and other long-term physiological stress levels.

HEIs are a political issue and science cannot drive the solutions alone. Most long-term solutions proposed over the years stress the need for political will to see it through.

The situation requires various departments like agriculture, transport, police and forest departments, nonprofits and scientists to work together to advance inclusive policies without discounting the urgency for scientists to share their study results with concerned departments and within their own communities. 

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