Human-Elephant Conflict: Opportunities for coexistence

As the world grows more crowded, spaces inhabited by wildlife and humans tend to overlap resulting in human-wildlife conflict (HWC). While peaceful coexistence is possible, negative encounters due to various factors continue to be a challenge in conservation. Human expansion into wildlife habitat is especially problematic for Asian elephants that need a large area for their ecological needs[1]. As a result, these animals break into human settlements and cause significant losses to the community. 

Asian elephants are found to impose the highest damages with a probability of 35.1%.[4] Photo by Lokesh Kaushik on Unsplash

Home to large numbers of Asian elephants, India’s rural population carries the daily risk of human-elephant conflict (HEC) especially in places where resources are nature-based. The practice of monoculture (planting only one type of crop in a given area), in regions like Karnataka is found to increase the frequency of HEC which can have a major negative impact on local sentiments and behavior towards conservation[2,3]. In relation to this, the country is reported to incur an estimated one million hectares of destroyed crops and 10,000 to 15,000 damaged properties yearly[4]. While these losses are often used as the basis for calculating economic impacts, there exists an irreversible casualty usually unaccounted for: human life. 

In India, the country with the largest number of Asian elephants, HEC kills 500 humans and 100 elephants every year[5]. This retaliatory elephant killing is a serious threat in conservation and is a driving factor to the decline in population[3]. A study by Gulati et al. (2019) encompassing 5000 households in the states of Karnataka, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Maharashtra examined damages to property and human casualties as a result of HWC[4].  Among the animal species (pig, nilgai, elephant, leopard, tiger, wolf and others) evaluated in the study, the damages caused by elephants amounted to a fifth of a farmer’s yearly crop income. Furthermore, these damages were 600 to 900 times more than that of a farmer experiencing losses from other herbivores, namely the pig and nilgai. The study’s authors therefore concluded that the elephant brought about more casualties than other species included in the study. In addition, human death only occurred in two reserves out of five, namely Nagarahole and Bandipur, but the calculated cost from the risk of injury or death from HEC already amounted to $42,236. While the Indian government provides monetary compensation for human injury and death, this only amounts to an average of $3,234 for mortality and $103 for injuries across the four states.

Damages from Asian elephants are 600 to 900 times more than that of other herbivores namely the pig and nilgai.[4] Photo by Sauhrab Mishra on Unsplash.

The current status of HEC in India tells us that much remains to be done. At present,  negative incidents seem inevitable due to the increasing number of settlements near protected areas. A long-term goal of conservationists is to enable coexistence between humans and elephants. To aid this effort, the United Nations Environment Programme and World Wildlife Fund have published The Six Elements of HWC Management[3]

  • Understanding the conflict : Measures such as research on hotspot mapping and community attitudes to understand the context for conflict.
  • Mitigation: Lessening the aftereffects of HWC through compensation, alternative livelihoods, employment etc.
  • Response: Tackling ongoing HWC through organized teams, mechanisms, and standard operating procedures. 
  • Prevention: Preventing the occurrence of HWC through devices such as fences, detection tools, warning signals etc.
  • Policy: Involvement of government and authorities by creating management measures and mechanisms. 
  • Monitoring: Assessing the efficiency of HWC interventions through acts like data collection. 

At the time of writing, Karnataka has initiated an early warning system signal through text messages, online messaging applications, and sign boards which significantly reduced deaths and injuries a year into its launch in 2018[6]. In 2020 the government of India has also launched Surakhsya[7], a compendium on best practices of HEC management, with a positive outlook towards supporting efforts to minimize conflict and reaffirm the protection of elephants by mobilizing resources supported by the government.

References:

1Neupane, D., Kwon, Y., Risch, T. S., Williams, A. C., & Johnson, R. L. (2019). Habitat use by Asian elephants: Context matters. Global Ecology and Conservation, 17, e00570. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gecco.2019.e00570

2Ramanan, SS. (2019, February 14). Landscape-level approach necessary to address human-elephant conflicts. DownToEarth. https://www.downtoearth.org.in/news/wildlife-biodiversity/landscape-level-approach-necessary-to-address-human-elephant-conflicts-63242

3United Nations Environment Programme & World Wildlife Fund. (2021, July 8). A Future for All: The Need for Human-Wildlife Coexistence. https://www.unep.org/resources/report/future-all-need-human-wildlife-coexistence

4Gulati, S., Karanth, K. K., Le, N. A., & Noack, F. (2021). Human casualties are the dominant cost of human–wildlife conflict in India. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 118(8), e1921338118. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1921338118

5Nandi, J. (2020, August 10). At least 500 persons are killed in human-elephant conflict every year: Environment min data. Hindustan Times. https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/at-least-500-persons-are-killed-in-human-elephant-conflict-every-year-environment-min-data/story-MbLQNN5Snm22W6gC32Of0I.html

6Niyogi, DG. (2019, February 21). Early elephant warning systems help, but are short-term measures: Experts. DownToEarth. https://www.downtoearth.org.in/news/wildlife-biodiversity/early-elephant-warning-systems-help-but-are-short-term-measures-experts-63311

7Fernandes, B. (2020, August 12). World Elephant Day: Union Min Prakash Javadekar launches portal on human-elephant conflict. Republic World. https://www.republicworld.com/india-news/general-news/union-min-prakash-javadekar-launches-human-elephant-conflict-portal.html