New solutions needed to tackle jumbo issues
Fixing the man-elephant conflict over space is a process of trial and error, and adapting best practices from across the world
Elephants are migratory animals and are known to travel up to hundreds of kilometers. Once they get used to a route, they tend to stick to it, even if it means travelling through land that has been converted into agricultural fields or human settlements over time.
For instance, a few elephants travel from the Bannerghatta National Park in Bengaluru to Tumkur, 70km away. These elephants have been making the same journey up and down since the late 1990s, retired Karnataka forest officials recounted at the 2018 Nature InFocus wildlife photography festival in Bengaluru last month. That the stretch between Bengaluru and Tumkur is today dotted with restaurants, settlements and stretches of highway doesn’t deter the pachyderms.
There have been over 40 human deaths since 2008-09 in just the Virajpet area of Karnataka’s Kodagu district, said Subbiah, a small coffee plantation owner, at the event. There is trauma on both sides. “Capturing an elephant (that has caused human or crop damage) is a very painful process, not only for the elephant but for the humans involved too. These elephants are either permanently sent to captivity at various camps in Karnataka or given out to other states. Only some get rehabilitated in other landscapes," said Vinay Luthra, retired head of the forest department of Karnataka.
The only effective way to deal with human-elephant conflict is to constantly experiment with new solutions, not least because elephants are highly intelligent and capable of finding workarounds. Simple electric fences, for example, can be easily overcome by adult elephants with some experience. They either use tree trunks or the insulated, padded part of their feet to break through electric fences. But innovation is possible even within fencing.
“We’ve been experimenting with tentacle fencing in Nagarhole National Park and so far it has proven to be very effective. The method has been borrowed from Sri Lanka, and involves wires hanging down vertically at a certain height. Elephants can’t break these types of fences," says Punati Sridhar, principal chief conservator of forests, Karnataka.
The Karnataka forest department, regarded by conservationists and wildlife enthusiasts as among the most proactive when it comes to prevention, is also experimenting with the African beehive method to mitigate human-elephant conflicts in Hassan. Beehive boxes are placed on either side of a pathway or a stretch of land that elephants use. The boxes are connected by ropes so that when an elephant tries to cross it, the rope tugs on the beehive box and disturbs the bees, which are then likely to sting an elephant and prevent it from continuing down the same path.
But biologist Sreedhar Vijayakrishnan says the African bee method may not be as effective in India. Asian bees are not as aggressive as African bees. It is also less effective at night because bees are not active then, whereas human-wildlife conflicts are more frequent at night.
In Tamil Nadu’s Valparai area, an early warning system has also worked effectively. The system, initiated in 2010-11, involves families living in the region registering for so-called early warning messages (SMS, WhatsApp) that warn people of elephant presence in human habitation. Initially only around 350 families registered for it but now that number has gone up to 5,000. Property damage in the area due to human-elephant conflicts has declined 50-55% since the system was initiated and the number of human deaths annually is down to one from around three on average—thanks to a simple texting system that helped humans avoid crossing paths with elephants.
The most effective method is using old railway tracks to construct grids or barricades. But this is an expensive method that costs over ₹ 1 crore per kilometre while tentacle fences, for example, cost only ₹ 4 lakh per kilometre.
What is of solace is the number of elephants that stray outside forests into areas occupied by humans is very low, at least in the south. “The Bandipur, Nagarahole and Mudumalai forest reserves put together have around 7,000 elephants. But the conflicting elephants are only about 2-3% of the population," said Surendra Varma, research scientist at Asian Nature Conservation Foundation, at the Nature InFocus event.