Industrialization cuts both ways in elephant-human conflict

Amid the office parks and high-rises of bustling Bangalore, confronting a rampaging elephant herd running at full throttle seems unlikely. But it happens, and not too far from the busy modern city.

An average of six people a year die from elephant attacks in Karnataka, the southern Indian state of which Bangalore is the capital. Just three years ago, a 24-year-old technology worker was trampled to death in a forest 12 miles south of the city.

The thick forests along a 165-mile swath of land that runs from the Western Ghat mountains to just south of modern Bangalore are home to 90 percent of Karnataka’s more than 21,000 elephants. Within this belt, farmers and villagers are at considerable risk of coming into contact with elephant herds.

The rapid industrialization of the farmland surrounding the elephant regions has worsened the problem.

“The level of interactions between elephants and humans is very intense today,” said Professor R. Sukumar of the Indian Institute of Science, who studies elephant-human conflicts. “There are vehicles going around at high densities and speeds and cars going through roads where elephants try to cross. This changes the contemporary nature of interactions between these animals and people.”

Elephants and humans have a long and not always pleasant history of encounters. For centuries, elephants have been the victims of vicious human attacks, hunted and poached for their valuable ivory tusks, and shot dead or seriously injured to prevent them from ruining farmers’ crops. Each fears the other, Sukumar said.

Generally, the conflict seems to peak during crop season, usually in January and July, when elephants are drawn to farming areas within the elephant belt. M. Nishant, a doctoral student working with Sukumar at the National Institute of Advanced Sciences at IISC, said that farmers could adjust their practices to anticipate the behavior of elephants and avoid conflicts. It is important for humans to be mindful of how they approach situations in which elephants and people come into contact, he said.

“An elephant will respond to humans in the same way they are approached,” he said. “If they feel threatened, they will definitely charge at you.”

Some of his suggestions for farmers include growing crops that are less attractive to elephants, removing crops from the fields and drying them elsewhere to avoid enticing elephants to farmers’ turf, and avoiding violent tactics such as shooting or throwing rocks to ward off the animals. Such tactics upset the elephants, which may react aggressively.

In June, an elephant attacked and killed a laborer after wandering onto the Tata Coffee Estate near the city of Coorg at the southwestern end of the elephant belt. In this situation and others like it, the state government has offered compensation to families of the victims of up to $200,000 per death.

Nationwide, India has seen about 30 deaths every year in the past five years. The national government and wildlife conservationists have increased their efforts to protect both humans and elephants. In India, where elephants, like cows are venerated by Hindus, policies toward elephants tend to be “tolerant,” Sukumar said, explaining that authorities would not euthanize an elephant that has caused one human death.

“An elephant will be declared a rogue only if it has killed several people, and only sometimes,” he said.

Elephants receive the highest protection by law under the Wildlife Protection Act, with three to seven years of jail time plus numerous fines as punishment for hunting or poaching these animals. In addition, the forest department in Bannerghatta, an area near Bangalore that is heavily populated by elephants, has begun to inform farmers of the risks of farming and dwelling on these lands. The government has designated some of the land as human no-go zones for the protection of both human and elephant lives and is fencing off these areas to keep elephants from wandering into settlements.

Despite industrialization’s contribution to the ongoing conflict between elephants and humans, Bangalore’s status as India’s tech hub has proved useful in easing the tension between the two parties. Conservationist Ananda Kumar has created a cell phone app that tracks the movements of elephants along the Valparai plateau area of the Western Ghats, about 290 miles from Bangalore.

Conflict response teams, local informants and forest department workers have joined with Kumar to act as watchdogs tracking elephant movement. Upon spotting an elephant, these workers transmit the information to local farmers and residents through text messages. Every night, the local news broadcasts the latest elephant sightings.

Kumar created the app to protect the nearly 70,000 plantation laborers who work in fields that were flattened to accommodate the coffee and tea industry on the Valparai plateau, which is surrounded by the Anamalai hills. “Anamalai” means “elephant hills” in the Tamil language.

Kumar could not be reached for comment, but in April, after accepting a £35,000 award for his app from the Whitley Fund for Nature in London, he told The Guardian newspaper: “The local communities have adopted this. Government has responded positively. It is a collective effort that is actually making it a win-win situation, both for elephants and for people.”


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