Explained: Rising number of human-elephant conflicts in Kerala

human-elephant conflicts in kerala
Heavily populated human settlements close to forests and increasing animal population in Kerala lead to a rise in the number of human-elephant conflicts.

The capture of wild elephant PT-7 in Palakkad district has brought to light the issue of increasing number of human-elephant conflicts in Kerala. An increase in animal population, increased cultivation near wildlife habitats, and changes in cropping pattern are cited as the reasons for the increase in man-animal conflicts in the state.

India is home to approximately 60% of the population of Asian elephants which is classified as endangered. This situation is compounded by the fact that 80% of the Indian elephant population lives outside of protected areas. As elephants are long-ranging animals, their home ranges cannot be fully encompassed by protected areas as is the case with tigers. Consequently, it is essential to safeguard the integrity of elephant habitats and the corridors they use.

Around 30% of Kerala’s geographical area is covered by forests. Heavily populated human settlements and agricultural plantations can be found close to forests. Those living near wildlife habitats suffer financial damage due to frequent raids by elephants and wild boars. The Kerala forest department has recorded more than 48,000 incidents of crop damage between 2013-14 and 2018-19. Wild elephants are responsible for a majority of these incidents. The loss of livestock including cattle, buffalo and goat is put at 814 and Tigers account for 420 of these incidents.

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The development of new roads which further fragment viable habitats is also an issue. As a result, a large number of elephants are forced to reside alongside humans, leading to more frequent interactions and an increase in human-elephant conflicts. In 2010, the Elephant Task Force issued a report which proposed the protection of elephant landscapes, in order to both conserve the species and reduce human-elephant conflicts.

With the enactment of legislation such as the Wildlife Protection Act (1972), the elephant population which had been declining began to stabilise and increase. This leads to animals venturing to new landscapes that had not seen elephants for decades. The last Elephant Census was held in 2017 which reported a population of 27,312 elephants in the country. This showed a decline in elephant population from the 2012 Elephant Census.

This decline is attributed to usage of scientific and uniform methods in 2017 which bore more credible results. However, in 2019, it came under light that Kerala had undercounted its elephant population, leading to an updated figure of 29,964 elephants. Human population also started to increase due to the Green Revolution and better healthcare facilities from the 1960s. This ultimately led to a competition for resources between the two species. But the current trend shows stabilising/ declining human population in the state.

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Human-elephant conflicts on the rise

Elephants living in proximity to human-inhabited areas have a tendency to feed on crops such as paddy and banana. Conflicts happen when farmers take steps to safeguard their crop from elephant raids. Elephants have the potential to cause considerable damage to homes and other infrastructure. To protect against such occurrences, electric fences, trenches, and other methods are sometimes put in place.

According to a report from the ministry of environment, approximately 500 human lives and 100 elephant lives are lost annually due to conflicts. Human fatalities are generally associated with the animal’s extreme stress and its subsequent charge or attack. Elephant deaths are usually caused by electrocution, being struck by trains, and, in some cases, poisoning. Recently, two human fatalities and one elephant death occurred in Jharkhand within a 24-hour period, with the humans being crushed and the elephant succumbing to electrocution. All three events were unrelated.

Perceptions of people

Recently, an elephant encounter occurred in a marketplace in the Hooghly district of West Bengal. While no human casualties or significant property damage were reported, such encounters can have an effect on people’s perceptions of elephants and their interactions with them. These perceptions can shape attitudes and practices, and if negative, can lead to an increase in incidents of animal deaths due to poisoning or explosives-filled fruits.

Last month, a retired tea estate worker was killed by an elephant in the Nilgiris. This led to local protest and refusal to allow the body to be taken for post-mortem. The people demanded a permanent solution from the forest department to address the human-elephant conflicts.

Social media and context

In the era of instant communication and connectivity, it is very easy to share information and incidents from around the world which can affect the understanding and perceptions. For example, videos of elephant attacks on humans and human cruelty on elephants have been widely shared on social media platforms, causing a great deal of controversy and debate.

Recently, a video of a boy chasing and hitting an elephant with a stick went viral, eliciting responses from conservationists who demanded strict action against the person, as well as from people who called for the respective authorities to take appropriate measures to prevent elephants from entering farmlands. Such content can inflame emotions, leading to conflict between people with different ideologies, and ultimately contribute to the increased incidence of human-elephant conflict.

The Coexist project in Botswana and The Nature Conservation Foundation’s Elephant Hills project in India strive to find solutions to human-elephant conflict. It is difficult to find common solutions due to the varying population densities and associated factors. Botswana has 4 people and 0.3 elephants per km2, whereas India has 400 people and 0.008 elephants per km2. To develop successful solutions for different regions, the factors must be considered and a tailored solution must be implemented.

It is of utmost importance to find solutions to mitigate these conflicts. The key to a solution is to understand what the factors influencing the conflicts are in each area. There is no one solution to end these conflicts. We need to come up with localised solutions catering to elephants of the area, the people of the area and all other factors that play a role in such interactions. This process is laborious, yet necessary as coexistence is no longer an option, but an essential.

(Devaki B Nair is pursuing her masters from The Energy and Research Institute (TERI) School of Advanced Studies, New Delhi. She is currently working on a project focusing on human-elephant interactions with The Shola Trust in Nilgiris.)