Nidhi Jamwal is an independent journalist based in Mumbai.
The environment ministry recently released an elephant census report, tiled ‘Synchronized Elephant Population Estimation India 2017’. It pegs India’s wild elephant population at 27,312 across 23 states. Karnataka has the most wild elephants (6,049), followed by Assam (5,719) and Kerala at (3,054). Whereas wildlife experts claim the elephant population to be “stable” (the 2012 census reported 29,391-30,711 elephants), they have raised concerns over rising human-elephant conflicts in the country, particularly in the elephant habitat and fractured elephant corridors.
Between 1998 and 2001, 900 people were killed in elephant attacks, an average of 250-300 per year. However, there were 391 deaths in 2014.
Angry people have retaliated by poisoning or electrocuting the elephants. Between 2006 and 2011, at least 200 elephants were killed in such attacks across India. There has been a strong demand to capture, relocate and even cull the elephants. However, they are Schedule I animals: they are supposed to get the highest level of protection under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. State forest departments tend to deal with the elephant problem by digging elephant-proof trenches (EPTs), setting up electric fences and, in extreme cases, capturing and relocating elephants, spending lakhs on preventive measures and compensation to human victims conflicts.
However, these methods haven’t been able to keep elephants away from people or vice versa. Either the EPTs fail to work or the people in charge of their upkeep don’t keep up.
Communities living in and around forests are now going back to the basics to keep the elephants at bay. For instance, 27-year-old Gururaj Kadam of Ajgaon village in Uttara Kannada owns 10 acres of land on which he grows sugarcane and paddy. The only thing dividing his farmland from the reserve forest is an EPT. “However, the trench is no use as every now and then elephants enter my field and raid the crops,” Kadam told The Wire. “In the past, I used to lose 50-60% of my crop to elephant raids. But for the last two years, I am using simple methods, such as chilli smoke and chilli rope, to keep elephants away from my fields. The crop damage has come down to 10-20%, which is manageable.”
Over 558 farmers in 95 villages of Uttara Kannada district are using such methods to deter elephants from entering agricultural fields and human settlements.
Managing conflict, the community way
In the evening, Kadam assembles three cow dung cakes in a straight, contiguous line and sprinkles a generous amount of waste chilli seeds on them, followed by barood (gunpowder), available freely in the village. Then, at the end of the third cake, he carefully places a firecracker. “The elephant comes into my field in the night from either of the two directions of the forest. Every night at 10, I place these dung cakes in both the directions and light them. They burn slowly throughout the night, giving out chilli and gunpowder smoke, which keeps the elephant away,” Kadam explained. When it rains, the cake mixture is put in a large tin can with holes, covered and suspended from a tree.
Kadam sometimes also uses the ‘chilli rope’ method’: a thick paste of green chillies, tobacco, grease and waste engine oil is smeared on a rope and old rags and hung in the elephant’s path. This is also very effective, according to him.
Several kilometres away is Gadgera village, deep inside the Yellapur division reserve forest. Forty families of the Siddi community, an Afro-Indian tribe, live there. “We have been living here for many generations and grow paddy, corn and sugarcane. Between August and January, elephants regularly attack our crops and cause huge damage,” according to Vimla, a resident of Gadgera.
In the last year, Gadgera’s residents have been using low-cost methods to thwart the elephants. “Using old newspapers, hay, waste chilli seeds, tobacco, animal bones, etc., we make a nine-foot long chudi [grass bundle] and hang it from a tree near the entry point of elephants. The chudi burns for at least six hours in the night and keeps elephants away,” says Annie, another resident.
Some farmers of the village also use trip alarms. A regular doorbell with two two-way switches and an electrical connection is fixed at the entry point. According to Annie, a nylon rope is tied along the field’s border and attached to the trip alarm. When an elephant tries to enter the field, it trips on the rope and sets off the alarm, alerting everyone.
And then there are experiments with ‘natural’ barriers as well. For example, Gajanan Naik lives right inside the reserve forest of Manchikeri range in Yellapur. Since elephants are afraid of bee sounds, Naik has been rearing bees and experimenting with beehive fences to keep the elephants away – like more than 200 farmers in Uttara Kanada are.
Kadam, Annie, Naik and many other villagers in the area are part of the Pune-based Wildlife Research and Conservation Society’s (WRCS’s) unique programme on human-elephant conflict mitigation. It trains local villagers to use simple, low-cost methods to keep elephants away from their fields. This is important because Karnataka has the largest number of wild elephants in the country and, per a 2012 report by the Karnataka Elephant Task Force, 25-30 people are killed in elephant attacks on average every year in the state.
The methods that the WRCS programme, kicked off in 2009, teaches the villagers have also been compiled as a manual titled ‘Sharing Space with Elephants – A do-it-yourself guide for crop protection’ to train field-level forest staff in community-based conflict management. Teams from Karnataka, Maharashtra, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal and Nagaland regularly attend the training programmes and implement these methods in their home states.
Far from requiring expensive measures like digging trenches or setting up electric fences, the measures suggested in the manual cost between Rs 50 and Rs 300 apiece.
They are divided into three broad categories.
- Deterrents that discourage elephants from entering agricultural fields such chilli smoke, chilli ropes and guarding fields at night (elephants usually do not like being around humans)
- Early warning techniques, such as trip alarms, to alert farmers if their fields have been trespassed
- Repellents to drive elephants away from farmland without harming them, such as beehive fences.
S.S. Bist, former director of the Indian government’s Project Elephant, bats for such community-based methods to keep these pachyderms away. “Using one deterrent regularly for a long time will mean that the elephant will understand it is a trick and will no longer be scared of it. Different deterrents should be used in rotation. The surprise element has to be there for these deterrents to work,” he told The Wire.
According to Prachi Mehta, executive director of research at WRCS, community-based deterrents work best when an entire village comes together to implement them. Along with the villagers, the WRCS has formed more than 60 crop-protection committees in the villages of Uttara Kannada with an aim to completely eliminate crop damage by elephants in the next few years.
But why is the conflict growing?
A 2012 study pointed out that between 1991 and 1999, over 3,000 sq. km of elephant habitat was lost due to encroachment and deforestation in northeast India. The same study also pointed out that in the Western and Eastern Ghats – which together cover parts of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Tamil Nadu – the elephant habitat has shrunk due to increase in human population, expansion of agriculture, commercial plantations, hydroelectric and irrigation dams.
A scientific paper that Mehta coauthored in 2013 described how the destruction of forests in Karnataka forced elephants to move to Maharashtra and Goa. Similarly, Andhra Pradesh had no wild elephants till the early 1980s. Sometime in 1984, elephants from the Hosur-Dharmapuri region in Tamil Nadu moved into Andhra and made it their home. Since 1987, the number of elephants in West Bengal has been on the rise thanks to their migration from the the Dalma Wildlife Sanctuary in Jharkhand. In 1987, there were 28-32 elephants the state. By 2013, there were 135-140.
The single-largest threat to the elephants of northern Odisha and southern Jharkhand is large-scale mining for minerals containing iron and manganese. This has been acknowledged by none other than the environment ministry, in a 2010 report. It states, “Mining, especially open cast mining has dealt a severe blow to elephant conservation in the country, especially in Central India where most of elephant areas in Singhbhum (Jharkhand), Keonjhar, Mayurbhanj, Dhenkanal, Angul and Phulbani (Orissa) have been severely fragmented leading to increased human-elephant conflict and movement of elephants to adjoining states of Chhattisgarh and West Bengal.”
(Between 1980 and 2005, about 95,000 hectares (ha) of forest land was diverted for mining activities in India.)
Forest departments also blame mining for increasing human-elephant conflicts. “Increased iron ore mining in Jharkhand and Odisha has pushed elephants into our range in Chhattisgarh,” says Mohit Ram Kashyap, deputy ranger of Jashpur division in the Chhattisgarh forest department. Last year, Kashyap attended the WRCS training programme.
Infrastructure projects like highways and railway lines also cut across elephant corridors and exacerbate the conflict. Since 1987, 150 elephants have died after being hit by trains, with Assam leading the chart.
Forest officials also blame changing cropping patterns in the villages around forests. “More and more farmers are adopting cash crops like sugarcane, which is an open invitation to the wild elephants,” says Rajan Kumar Gupta, a forest guard of Mainpat range in Surguja, Chhattisgarh, and an attendee at last year’s workshop.
Such conflicts are causing not insignificant financial losses to state forest departments. Between 2002 and 2013, Maharashtra’s department paid compensation worth Rs 9 crore for crop depredation by elephants in Sindhudurg and Kolhapur districts. In south West Bengal, the ex gratia relief due to human-elephant conflicts increased from Rs 23.4 lakh in 2002 to over Rs 2 crore in 2011. At the national level, according to government data, compensation for crop loss and property damage increased from Rs 30.29 crore in 2013 to Rs 34.52 crore in 2014.
According to Bist, villagers are the first line of defence, and proper training can successfully keep elephants away from their fields. “People have been sharing space with these animals since time immemorial and have a set of traditional knowledge,” he said. “With some encouragement and guidance, local communities can modify these simple methods and come up with even better solutions.”