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

Bees are Helping Thailand’s Elephants and Farmers to Peacefully Coexist – Bee Fences in Asia Part 2

A new study brings hope for reducing conflicts between elephants and farmers in Thailand

Guest post by Antoinette van de Water

Beehive fences in Thailand. Photo: BTEH

Kaeng Hang Maeo district in Eastern Thailand is in an area of high human-elephant conflict. A herd of about 70–80 elephants lives between the protected areas and agricultural land, causing damage to crops almost on a nightly basis. Over four years ago, Bring The Elephant Home (BTEH) and the Phuluang Wildlife Research Station started a joint project to evaluate the effectiveness of beehive fences in deterring Asian elephants, under supervision of Dr. Lucy King. We set up a pilot beehive fence around a subsistence farm surrounded by elephant habitat and installed camera-traps to record the elephants’ reactions to the bees, which belong the species Apis mellifera, or European honeybee.

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Wildlife-Viewing is Not Thrill-Seeking

Baretail and Batik with their newborns.

Baretail and Batik with their newborns.

We sometimes forget how fortunate we are to be able to watch peaceful, calm, habituated elephants in Udawalawe.  It’s easy to take for granted when they stand there, threshing their grass en masse, as though it were the most natural thing in the world to have a horde of humans gawking at them from a few meters away. This post may seem self-evident to a younger generation of wildlife watchers, who have grown up in a world packed to the breaking point with human beings and who realize that wilderness is an increasingly rare and precious thing.  But it may challenge the thinking of some, particularly those of an older generation, for whom wilderness was a vast and ominous space teeming with dangerous things.  For the latter, seeing wildlife might satisfy the need for a thrill in the same way as watching a frightening movie or visiting an amusement park – especially if that wildlife acts fierce and ferocious, such as charging elephant might do. This view still prevails among more than a handful of people today, who might think that seeing the “tame” elephants of some national parks is not as much fun as getting a much more “wild” experience in more secluded areas where the animals elicit more mutual terror.

If this is you, or someone you know, then read on and share. This post is for you.

Loch Ness monster?

Loch Ness monster?

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Jackals and Turtles and Elephants, Oh My!

By Michael Pardo, Cornell University 

Monday, March 3, 2014

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[174], [036] and their calves spotted at Teak Reservoir

Sometimes it’s easy to become so focused on elephants that I forget about the other fascinating creatures that share their habitat.  This afternoon, we were watching [174], [036], and their calves at the edge of the Teak Reservoir when a large gaggle of tourist jeeps frightened them off.

We decided to stay put for a few minutes after the tourists left, in the hope that the elephants might return.  No such luck, but our patience was rewarded with something else. Continue reading

On a roll

Guest post by Michael Pardo, Cornell University

Monday, January 7, 2013

We’ve been on a roll this last week.  Or maybe the elephants have.  Either way, I’ve heard far more vocalizing in the past week than in both of my first two weeks combined, and have managed to record some of it as well.  I hope for our luck to continue as we gather our equipment this morning and pile into the jeep.

Baby on the road

Before long we see [474]’s group, and almost immediately hear a rumble.  Unfortunately Kumara and I are still busy setting up the recording equipment, but I wait in the hopes of catching another call.  As I watch the elephants, I notice that they seem unusually “touchy-feely” today, for lack of a better word.  Continue reading

First day

Guest post by Michael Pardo, Cornell University

Wild boar

Curious boar.

December 18, 2012

A breathtaking expanse of bushes peppered with trees.   That is my first impression of Uda Walawe National Park as we pass through the entrance gate in the early hours of the morning.  The shrubs grow densely packed on either side of the ochre-colored road, like a vertically challenged forest.  They are interspersed with teak saplings, a reminder of the days when this park was a timber plantation.  Towering banyan trees soar above the surrounding vegetation, peacocks perched in their uppermost branches.  In the distance, I can see the blue mountains and waterfalls of Nuwara Eliya, and above them, a steely sky striated with rain-laden clouds.  A grey mongoose crosses the road ahead of us, stopping briefly to stare at our jeep before disappearing into the wall of greenery.  Flocks of Common Mynas and Spotted Doves spring into the air as we rumble past.

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Senate hearing on Ivory and Global Insecurity – Comments by Kate Nowak

Today there was hearing in the U.S. Senate foreign relations committee on the issue of Ivory and global insecurity,” chaired by Senator John Kerry (D-Massachusetts). In attendance were Senator Chris Coons (D-Delaware), and Senator Mark Udall (D-Colorado). Testimony was provided by Dr. Iain Douglas-Hamilton, Founder of Save the Elephants; Mr. Tom Cardamone, Managing Director of Global Financial Integrity; Mr. John Scanlon, Secretary General of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

This is a guest commentary by Katarzyna Nowak, co-director of the Udzungwa Elephant Project and lecturer in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton University. Continue reading