When farmers and elephants compete for space

By Lena Coker

These farmers in Sri Lanka are at the interface of forest and agriculture, where most incursions by elephants occur.

In Sherpur, rural Bangladesh, as the human population increases, so does the demand for the land and natural resources that the elephants need to survive. This is a story of human-animal conflict that is repeated around the globe with many species and rural communities as they struggle to find the balance for coexistence.

What is one of the most challenging areas for land managers when dealing with human-animal conflict? Multi-use landscapes. These areas must address multiple needs for humans and conservation goals. However, those needs often directly oppose each other. As wild landscapes become more fragmented and ideal habitat is degraded for many species like elephants, tigers, or monkeys, these animals push into the unprotected lands, often the multi-use landscapes that are common for subsistence rice farming in Bangladesh. When these animals have left protected lands, migrating into the areas humans are more active, their ability to thrive and continue to live becomes dependent on the local residents tolerating the animals in their space. They often use human resources such as farm crops which hurt their human counterparts’ ability to thrive and live.

In the study by Saif, et al published in 2019 [1], 243 subsistence rice farming households were interviewed by Bangla-speaking interviewers. Researchers did not request background information such as ethnicity or religion of those interviewed before the interview to prevent an unconscious bias in the interviewers. Residents asked for interviews were asked to participate in a rural livelihood survey and elephants were not mentioned explicitly to avoid response bias. The study claims that the motivations behind residents tolerating animals in their area could sorted not only into costs and benefits but further classified as intangible and tangible.

The Wildlife Tolerance Model [2] by Kansky and colleagues, proposes inner and outer components that together govern what one may call “tolerance” of wildlife. This is the conceptual framework used by Saif and colleagues for their study.

Tangible costs

Tangible costs are typically things like financial loss or infrastructure damage caused by the wildlife. These can be things like the animal eating crops, breaking fences or buildings, or even killing animals raised for food production. Compensation or crop and livestock insurance schemes are widely used by conservationists to offset these tangible costs and hopefully, promote increased tolerance in the residents who have to live with the wildlife, in this case, elephants.

Intangible costs

Intangible costs are typically things like the fear, stress, and worry caused by elephants or other wildlife and their activity. As well as sleep loss and reduced productivity as a result of night vigils to guard fields against elephants. When considering universal human needs these represent a lack of autonomy or feeling like there is no choice in one’s actions because of the situation of wildlife encroachment, a lack of safety or worrying about whether one would be injured by an elephant or other wildlife, and a lack of opportunity or spending time guarding against elephants instead of finishing productive tasks or socializing with family or friends.

Tangible benefits

Tangible benefits are often the compensations or equipment to repair damage caused by the elephants or development of social and community institutions such as schools.

Intangible Benefits

Intangible benefits are positive experiences and interactions with elephants whether with the animal itself, culturally, or through a religious capacity such as elephant’s relation to the Hindu god, Ganesh. Although it should be noted that while researchers found a cultural link to elephants for all residents, only 16.32% of respondents reported they were Koch-hindus who believe in Ganesh.


the survey data was expected to confirm that the tangible costs to their livelihoods would be the biggest influence on how tolerant the residents were of the elephants. However, intangible costs and benefits significantly influenced tolerance of elephants yet tangible costs did not significantly influence tolerance of elephants. Residents could be swayed up to 34% either more positive or negative in their responses based more on intangible factors by far than tangible ones. Residents who had faced more tangible costs were not less tolerant in general.

The multi-use landscape of Sherpur provides multiple safety nets that help protect the residents from tangible costs of sharing space with elephants. Relatives cover each other’s crop losses and provide emotional support when a family member’s rice fields are destroyed. Smaller side jobs for income can supplement loss as well, in this case logging supplemented the primary job of rice farming when needed. Common cultural beliefs also could sway opinions on elephants and their tangible costs such as in Sherpur, where damage by wildlife is viewed as God’s will. This was found to be a belief that was not tied to any particular religion of the area. This fatalistic acceptance of severe tangible costs coupled with the community sharing the economic burdens associated with tangible costs could be the reason for why tangible costs were not as influential.

This study found that there are benefits and costs to the cohabitation of humans and elephants. For residents of Sherpur, the authors of this study suggested employing youth teams to guard the fields, allowing farmers to focus on farming and relieve the effects of stress, inadequate sleep, and loss of time to socialize which would drastically help the intangible costs effecting residents and their tolerance of elephants. More research to find a way to increase tolerance, reduce in costs to both elephants and residents, and ways to increase benefits to both species needs to be done but this study gives an indication of where to start.


  1. Saif, O., Kansky, R., Palash, A., Kidd, M., Knight, A. T. (2019). Costs of coexistence: understanding the drivers of tolerance towards Asian elephants Elephas maximus in rural Bangladesh. Oryx, 1-9
  2. Kansky, R., Kidd, M. & Knight, A.T. (2016) A wildlife tolerance model and case study for understanding human wildlife conflicts. Biological Conservation, 201, 137–145



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