Anatomy of a Conflict

Human-elephant conflict has assumed significant proportions in recent times. Sanjay Gubbi dissects the conflict which has resulted in the death of 41 elephants in the state during 2009-10. Heightened destruction and fragmentation of elephant habitats thanks to development projects, forest fires and exploitation of forest products that lead to depleted food sources have meant elephants are raiding crops for food.

There has been a constant increase in the number of elephants killed due to retaliatory actions. During the year 2006-07, 16 elephants were killed, 12 in 2007-08, 46 in 2008-09 and 41 in 2009-10 in Karnataka. The compensation paid by the Forest Department has now reached 4.2 crore in elephant-bearing forest areas during 2008-09. That's a 290 per cent increase compared to 2005-06. 

Why do elephants raid crops?
Elephants consume agricultural crops due to higher nutritional value and lower toxicity than wild plants. However types of crops grown, season of ripening, location of agricultural fields, migration patterns and their need to access resources such as water and minerals all contribute to the intensity of crop raiding.

Why is it increasing?
Looking from a wildlife angle, some of the most serious issues include heightened destruction and fragmentation of elephant habitats due to a rise in development projects, forest fires and incessant exploitation of forest products that lead to depleted food sources in their natural habitat.
From a human perspective we have failed to reduce crop depredation, loss and injury to human life which has made people living around wildlife habitats turn more hostile towards wildlife as it threatens livelihoods of farmers. Earlier social taboos, religious sentiments prevented us from killing elephants. These ethics have eroded with changing times. Economic losses overrule other beliefs.

But aren't physical barriers such as electric fence and elephant proof trenches preventing damages?
These barriers need to be well maintained for optimal results. Electric fences are improperly maintained. People intending to access fuelwood, timber and fodder for livestock fill up trenches which act as exit bridges for elephants to come and raid crop. It's the responsibility of protected area managers and villagers to maintain these barriers.

Why not grow crops such as sugarcane and banana inside forests and prevent them from raiding agricultural fields?
Elephants have not evolved by feeding on these crops. Let's not meddle with their natural diet. But individual animals or groups are habituated to crop raiding. However it's important to know that each adult elephant needs about 250-300 kg of food daily. In Karnataka, based on educated guesses we should have 3,000 elephants. If we assume that about 25 per cent of these are raiding crops, we would require a colossal amount of 81,000 tonnes of crops to be artificially grown every month. Let's not turn our forests into agricultural fields. This is unsustainable, uneconomical and doesn't fit the natural process of ecosystems.

Then how about changing cropping pattern around elephant habitats?
I am sceptical about this theory. How far from elephant habitats can one ask farmers to change their cropping patterns? Elephants move several kilometres outside protected area boundaries. If all farmers within five kilometres around BRT sanctuary, which has a forest perimeter of 290 km, are asked to change cropping patterns an area of 375,000 acres of farmlands will have a change in agricultural production preferences and patterns. This is impossible. This would lead to higher resentment than human-elephant conflict. Farmers would like to grow what is economically more beneficial.

Is culling an option to control elephant population to reduce conflict?
Culling has been discontinued even in countries like South Africa that was a staunch promoter of this conservation paradigm. Till 1996, about 400 elephants were annually culled in South Africa's Kruger National Park, but they have now moved towards translocation of elephants to low density areas for population control.

Why not implement wildlife contraception to control their population rise?
To reduce any overgrown elephant population, even with complete contraception it would require 15 years to reduce population by 25 percent. Having no calves for 15 years will have devastating effects on the population structure. Moreover, several skills including parenting, finding food and water resources are passed on from adults to younger ones and this information transfer would be halted if there were no calves for long periods. Contraception should be implemented based on strong scientific data which we lack. In Makalali Reserve (225 sq km) in South Africa which has a population of 73 elephants, a two to three pc annual population growth is allowed. Close monitoring of annual population growth is required to decide how much growth can be allowed and that's possible in small populations like Makalali. This is extremely difficult when elephants are spread across 4,000 sq km in Karnataka. Elephants will have to be given doses twice in the first three months and followed up by annual boosters. This procedure has to be carried out through darting animals one by one making it an expensive, skilled and labour intensive effort.

How about rail track fences that are erected in South Africa?
These fences are built with nine thick wooden poles in between two steel railway tracks grouted deep in the ground. They are then horizontally bound by five strands of very thick steel cables and finally insulated with electric fence. This mechanism is prohibitively expensive costing about eighty lakh rupees/kilometre. This is unfeasible in a developing country like India due to high costs and theft of material. Even South Africa has discontinued it.

How do we stop the conflict?
There is no way we can bring conflict to point of zero. What we need to aim at is to bring it down to tolerable limits. The solution lies in maintenance of physical barriers which should be installed in co-operation and discussion with affected farmers. We need specially trained conflict mitigation staff who could be located in every elephant bearing forest division. They would address only conflict issues such as maintenance of barriers, dealing with compensation, interacting with affected farmers and should not be given the responsibility of regular patrolling or other tasks.

Protected area managers should stop sculpting elephant habitats by artificially augmenting water resources. Earlier, water regulated elephant populations and during dry periods they wandered long distances and calves foundered during those thirsty treks. Perhaps now we are not losing calves to natural mortality. Since adult elephants do not have natural predators, populations can grow unhindered. Resources and diseases are natural controllers of elephant population. We need not play God. Finally any solution needs to be socially, culturally, economically and scientifically feasible.

 Original Article