Wildlife news has been in the public spotlight recently, centering around the tragic death of a pregnant elephant, which ate a pineapple allegedly stuffed with a firecracker. Subsequently, this elephant stood in the middle of a river and died.
The story is tragic but the events that led up to it are not as obvious as simple animal cruelty. Elephants are some of the most formidable wild animals. It is very difficult to approach elephants in general, and further it is difficult to imagine a wild elephant friendly enough to humans to take food out of their hands. Even if the animal was hungry or desperate it would much rather have ransacked someone’s home or field for food, rather than willingly take it from someone’s hand. In a report that came out in 2019 in The Hindu, it was stated that more than 2300 people were killed by elephants in the last five years.
Clearly this means that people are still approaching these dangerous animals in close proximity willingly or unwillingly. For a small scale farmer, his crop is his entire basis for survival. He depends on its success to keep himself and his family alive for another year. In order to protect their crops they utilize different methods such as snares, traps, electrical fencing, sound machines, rudimentary scarecrows, and apparently as in this case the use of explosive devices.
The reason why farmers are compelled to use such invasive and cruel methods is the high cost of losing their yield. The systems that have been put in place by the government have failed to protect farmers. Although there have been several government instituted insurance schemes that have been widely available to farmers for many years, in a report published by the Observer Research Foundation in 2019 it was found that schemes such as the Pradhan Mantari Fasal Bima Yojana (PMFBY) were unsuccessful in their implementation. Due to widespread corruption, lack of transparency of insurance policies, political unwillingness of governments to spread awareness and provide insurance, and high premiums for policies, poor farmers are unable to avail insurance schemes. Additionally, the government has through almost laissez-faire incentive programs encouraged the palm oil industry to make massive inroads in the tropical states of Southern India.
Neha Simlai, writing for The Wire in 2018, pointed out the dangers of “dirty” palm oil, how it is spreading fast and devastating ecosystems and farmers alike. Palm oil has become lucrative for farmers that are looking to make a little more than what they would have from traditional small land holdings. It is in everything, if you pick up a packet of chips, laundry detergent, or the back of your lipstick you will see that palm oil is one of the major ingredients in these products.
Palm oil has virtually destroyed most of the rainforests across South East Asia. The climate of a rainforest is ideal for the crop but the amount of land required to have a viable yield makes it a threat to wild animals like elephants that also have wide ranging habitats and require a lot of land. Larger corporations essentially franchise out palm oil plantations to farmers. The farmer is indebted to several people, including corporates and surviving on credit is not something any farmer would choose. Thousands of hectares of oil palm plantations have now been planted in Kerala, destroying significant elephant habitat.
Basically, the farmer out of necessity has to fight and compete with wild animals for resources such as water and land. Growing cash crops instead of subsistence and local crops also means a higher risk and higher stakes for the farmer. The returns on his investments may be higher but because of debt and failure to grow food crops the farmer has no money and cannot feed his family if the crop fails.
The systems that we have in place are making it impossible for wild animals and the men and women that we depend on to grow our food to survive. The adverse effects of cash crop plantations have been known for many years, farmer suicides are linked to growing failed cash crops and the insurmountable debt incurred by the farmer for the same. The real tragedy that has been highlighted after the death of this particular elephant, is how little is being considered when it comes to wildlife conservation or farmer protection. The issue of human wildlife conflict has complex solutions but simple origins.
The bottom line is that wild lands are being encroached upon and because of habitat loss we have devastated communities of wild animals across India. During the lockdown images of animals, even rare and endangered ones, walking the streets of Indian cities were circulated. They didn’t come into the cities because we went inside our homes, they were just walking along ancient and long forgotten paths of their ancestors in search of food and shelter.
We will continue to read about and witness many more stories of tigers being poisoned, elephants being killed, and other animals threatened as long as we do nothing to protect a sustainable way of living for our often forgotten farmers.