Finding ways for coexistence of the troubled human elephant relationship
The Northeast of India is one of the strongholds of Asian elephants Elephas maximus. However, rapid habitat loss, fragmentation of habitats, loss of connectivity and escalating human-elephant conflicts have jeopardised the survival of elephants in the region. This contribution examines the historical and contemporary factors contributing to the precarious status of elephants and their habitats, highlighting the consequences of human-wildlife conflicts on humans and elephants, it examines measures to address the conflict and promotes coexistence.
The article by Dr Narayan Sharma is supplemented by illustrations from Vippin KP and a set of soundscapes curated by Seema Lokhandwala, illustrating a diversity of sounds that the elephants make when confronted with different life situations. It will help the reader to visualize and connect to the varied sounds, imageries, and emotions in the life of elephants in their spaces.
On 21 July 2014, Kalia Boro and his team of Haathi Bandhu were patrolling the railway track near Deepor Beel, a wetland located southwest of Assam’s capital Guwahati. A herd of elephants had descended from the adjoining Rani Reserve Forest (RF) and were crossing the road and the railway track to reach the wetlands. Kalia Boro immediately informed the station master of the nearby railway station to limit the speed of an incoming Guwahati-bound goods train. But all in vain! The train spared the elephants this time but hit Kalia Boro, who died on the spot.
The Elephant Protection Committee, popularly called Haathi Bandu, was constituted to prevent the increasing deaths of elephants on this railway track and Kalia Boro of nearby Mikirpara-Chakardo village was a natural choice to lead the team, primarily because of his immense understanding of elephants in the landscape and their behaviour. This track, constructed despite strong objections from environmentalists, by the Northeast Frontier Railways in 2001 to connect Guwahati with areas south of river Brahmaputra, has claimed the lives of 15 elephants and a human so far. The track lies between the famous Deepor Beel, and Rani-Garbhanga Reserve Forest that is a sanctuary for 200-odd elephants. ‘Deepor Beel’ literally translates to “a wetland inhabited by Dipa” (a Sanskrit word for elephants). The elephants frequently emerge from the forest and visit the wetland to drink and feed on the aquatic plants. Several of them have been mowed down by speeding trains.
Elephants are an integral part of the culture, beliefs, and history of Assam since times immemorial[i]. During medieval times, elephants were mostly used in wars and keeping them was considered a status symbol. During the colonial period, elephants were considered an important source of revenue generation. Domesticated elephants were also used for transportation and to clear-off jungles, hauling logs for railway construction work and used as mounts for hunting. The British government used to get significant revenue from elephant mahals[ii]. Hundreds of elephants were captured from elephants mahals and sold to different parts of the country. The selective removal of tuskers from the forests of Northeast India for the last 1,000 years has, unfortunately, skewed the ratio of tuskers and makhanas (male Asian elephants without tusks). Due to this selective removal, it has now been estimated that over 60 per cent of male elephants in the Northeast of India are currently tuskless[iii]. Moreover, encouraged by the colonial wasteland policy to promote tea plantation in the valley, thousands of acres of forestlands and grasslands – prime elephant habitats –were cleared to make room for tea gardens. The current human-elephant conflict in Assam can thus be understood as a manifestation of the historic and current deforestation and fragmentation of elephant habitats that the state has faced over the past centuries.
Current status of elephants and their habitats in Assam
Approximately 10,000-odd elephants now remain in Northeast India are distributed in four major populations[iv], over an area of about 37,000 square kilometres. All these populations are, however, highly fragmented and their habitats, throughout these ranges, face severe threats from encroachment and various developmental activities.
Elephant habitats in Northeast India have declined, fragmented, and degraded due to human settlements, land-use change, chronic resource extraction, and several developmental activities, including the expansion of linear infrastructure, such as roads and railways. Nikhil Lele and P K Joshi (2009) analysed deforestation rates in Northeast India during 1972-1999 and found that approximately 30 per cent of the total forest cover was lost under pressure of rapid land-use changes[v]. Close to 50 per cent of all reserve forests – prime elephant habitats – have been cleared for tea plantations and other land use along the Arunachal Pradesh and Bhutan border[vi]. The chronic extraction of forest resources from these forests has degraded the quality of elephant habitats and significantly reduced forage availability. Once the habitat is degraded and the canopy cover lost, it encourages invasive species to invade and proliferate. Coupled with an extensive road network, which acts as conduits, most elephant habitats have witnessed a rapid spread of invasive species, including plants such as touch-me-not, mile-a-minute while Ipomoea carnea and water hyacinth, have choked water bodies. The invasion of these species in elephant habitats has drastically reduced forage and water availability for elephants, and this could be one of the important factors that have led to elephants foraying into agriculture fields and human settlements in search of food.
Status of elephant corridors
Shaped by the historical as well as contemporary factors, the once contiguous elephant habitats of Assam have now been cut up into fragments of different sizes and shapes, located in a sea of tea gardens, agricultural fields and human settlements. Populations of elephants are now confined to these fragmented islands and their fate is determined by the quality of the remaining habitats and the nature of the areas surrounding the forests, which determines how well-connected these patches are. Right of Passage: Elephant Corridors of India, a report produced by the Wildlife Trust of India, has identified 101 elephant corridors[vii] throughout India, of which 23 corridors are from Northeast India. However, only a mere 12.9 per cent of elephant corridors are totally under forest cover while the rest are in mosaics of different land use, such as human settlements, agriculture or tea gardens. An ever expanding network of linear infrastructure has, unfortunately, obstructed the corridors, leading to an increasing mortality of elephants due to accidents. The report further highlights the fact that active railway lines pass through 14 per cent of elephant corridors of Northeast India. It has been estimated that 265 elephants have been killed in railway accidents throughout India, between 1987 and 2017.
In Assam, many corridors have been encroached to build resorts or other infrastructures. For instance, the Numaligarh Refinery Limited has erected a 2.2-km boundary wall close to an elephant corridor in the Golaghat district of Assam, severely obstructing their movement. A couple of corridors that connect the East and West Blocks of Upper Dehing forests in Digboi, where 295 elephants frequently cross, are now compromised by the building of Oil India Limited’s despatch terminal and the widening of India’s proposed NH-38 bypass through National Highways Authority of India. The elephant habitat of the Northeast Indian region, in general, is contiguous with Bhutan, Bangladesh and Myanmar, and, to some extent, with Nepal. The fencing along the India–Bangladesh border has become a huge barrier to the trans-boundary movement of wild elephants at many locations in Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Tripura[viii]. It is important to note that the continued survival of elephants in the region depends on the genetic mixing of the different fragmented populations and any barrier that prevents their movement decreases their opportunities to mate, thereby leading to inbred populations that could be susceptible to low genetic and reproductive fitness. Due to various developmental activities, rapid construction of roads, railways and other linear infrastructures, many such elephant corridors are now defunct. Such encroachment of corridors by people has also led to increasing human-elephant conflict across Northeast India.
Consequences of human-elephant conflict
Diminishing and fragmented habitats have led to a greater interface between humans and elephants, giving rise to human-elephant conflict, a situation detrimental for both species. The conflict mostly arises because of crop and property damages, and both human and elephant mortalities. In Assam alone, 875 people have lost their lives due to human-elephant conflicts over the last 10 years. The highest number of 115 deaths was reported from Udalguri district, followed by 102 in Sonitpur, 74 in Goalpara and 51 in Darang. At the same time, 825 elephants have also died, especially in Sonitpur, Udalguri and Goalpara, which have thus become the conflict hotspots of Assam. That habitat loss is possibly the primary cause of increasing human-wildlife conflict is evidenced by the observation that between 1994 and 2001, Sonitpur district of central Assam has lost 232.10 sq km forests due to encroachment while Udalguri district has also witnessed massive deforestation, due to the expansion of its small tea gardens[ix]. A study by Chartier et al. (2011) in Sonitpur proposed that a critical habitat threshold for human-elephant conflict may exist at a level of 30-40 per cent forest cover. Below this level, it is possible for such conflict to expand across the landscape[x].
In the Goalpara district of Assam, another hotspot of human-elephant conflict, natural forests are being increasingly replaced by rubber plantations, banana and oil palm cultivation, tea gardens, and dipterocarp forests. The local communities have observed that earlier, elephants used to come from the nearby Garo Hills of Meghalaya only during the cultivation of paddy. However, they now inhabit these areas throughout the year, thereby escalating their negative interactions with people. Between September 2020 and September 2021, for example, 11 people have lost their lives due to elephant attacks. On the other hand, five elephants have died, all of them from electrocution. Frustrated by the repeated incidences of crop raids as well as the failure of the state forest department to provide timely compensation for their crop and property loss, the local people have resorted to illegal means of killing wild elephants through electrocution and poisoning. Between May 2001 and November 2001, 14 elephants have died due to poisoning in the Sonitpur district of Assam alone. Between 2009 and September 2020, 113 elephants have been reported to have died due to electrocution in Assam, the highest in the country, and this is rapidly becoming a leading cause of elephant mortality[xi].
Such recurrent conflict has had detrimental effects on both elephants and humans. It has been found that due to constant chasing by people, elephants, particularly the males, who are mainly involved in crop-raiding and property damage, in some cases, have elevated concentrations of stress-related glucocorticoid metabolites in their dung.[xii] There are also marked changes in elephant behaviour as well, with local testimonies and recent human death incidents in the Udalguri district of Assam suggesting that elephants, especially solitary makhanas, have become far more aggressive than before in recent times.
People, mostly the marginalised farmers, disproportionately bear the brunt of human-elephant conflict. The continuous presence and depredation of crops by elephants force people to switch to other monocultures, such as tea and rubber, and, in some areas, to lemon and chilli farming. People of Rasi Line, a colony of tea garden labourers near the Hollongapar Gibbon Sanctuary, have recently abandoned paddy cultivation due to frequent elephant raids during the crop season. Other villagers within the vicinity of the sanctuary have converted their small farmlands and orchards to small tea gardens, due to the continuous depredation by elephants and non-human primates. Local communities have also been encouraged to cultivate crops, such as lemons and chilli, around the Manas National Park. Although there is a huge visible cost of human-elephant conflict, as outlined above, the hidden costs associated with such conflict also cannot be ignored.
Maan Barua, an expert in human-wildlife relationships, and his team have categorised these hidden costs in terms of opportunity costs, transaction costs, and impacts on mental health[xiii]. Opportunity costs are those incurred due to restrictions of human movement and increased guarding of crop fields, which lead to poor physical and psychological well-being. This results in a severe loss in opportunities for individuals or the community to achieve its full potential and hinders their overall well-being. People incur transaction costs mostly because of the delay in proper compensation and their associated costs that can lead to increased debt, especially for marginalised communities. In fact, most of the time, people do not receive any compensation at all, or even if they do get it, it is only after making several trips to the forest department, with the amount received often being less than the amount they had spent making these trips. A constant fear of elephants and loss of livelihoods could also lead to increased mental health issues. These factors have never hitherto been considered while assessing the costs of human-elephant conflict. Barua’s team has also found that the fatality of men could especially lead to increased family debts and aggravated pre-existing poverty.
Both genders within human society are differentially affected by human-elephant conflict. There are costs shared by both males and females equally, while other costs have distinct gender components. Sayan Banerjee, a doctoral student at the National Institute of Advanced Studies in Bangalore, who has been studying elephants in Udalguri district, opines that space usage and division of labour in society often overlap with the elephants’ preferred spaces. Human spaces are, however, always gendered. Rural women, for example, need to take care of the household by accessing spaces, such as forests or riverbanks to collect firewood, fodder or water. They thus have higher chances of encountering elephants in the wild. On the other hand, men experience more combative situations with elephants in the agricultural field at night while guarding crops, as it is their duty to provide food security to the household.
The cost of chasing elephants, when they come out of the forest, is mostly borne by the forest department. The department thus needs to stay vigilant at all times, especially during the harvesting season, when the fields are rich with crops. This causes a loss of many hours of manpower, which could have otherwise been used in the patrolling of the forest areas to prevent other wildlife crimes.
Preventive and mitigative measures
Various methods have been tested in the field to prevent and mitigate human-elephant conflict. Preventive measures, such as early warning systems, including barriers like trenches or electric fencing as well as deterrents – drum beating, chilli fencing or spotlights – are used to prevent elephants from raiding crops and to safeguard human settlements. The effectiveness of these preventative measures has been rigorously tested by a team of Assam Haathi Project in the Goalpara and Sonitpur districts[xiv]. They found that amongst all the interventions employed by the local communities, spotlights, chilli fences and electric fences have been highly effective in preventing crop damage by elephants. They, however, found that noise-based methods, such as shouting, bursting crackers, and beating drums, appeared to compromise the effective measures. Some of the mitigative measures, such as compensation schemes, seem to have absolutely failed, due to the prolonged delays in disbursing compensation amounts. Villagers adjacent to the Hollongapar Gibbon Sanctuary and Amchang Wildlife Sanctuary claimed that they had not received anything for the last several years despite filing compensation claims on time and in the correct way.
To offset such economic losses, many non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and different line departments of Assam have implemented several livelihood-based programmes. Nandita Hazarika, who led the Assam Hathi Project[xv], said that although it would seem natural to initiate livelihood programmes to mitigate the damage caused by elephants, most of them have failed as the programmes need continuous financial support and long-term engagement with the communities. Her team, for instance, tried several interventions, such as encouraging plantations of cash crops, including ginger, chilli or citrus fruits, production of handicrafts, food processing, poultry and cattle farming, and piggeries. However, none of these seems to have worked effectively, except perhaps the piggeries to a certain extent.
Wildlife management is actually human management. Elephants being intelligent animals adapt quickly to the temporary mitigative measures. So in the long run, none of the mitigative measures become sustainable as no work has been carried out to improve the root causes of such conflicts such as improving habitat quality by habitat restoration.
WWF-India has been working with the tea estates of Apeejay Tea to find a sustainable solution to human-wildlife conflict in Sonitpur district, which is one of the districts most affected by the conflict[xvi]. It is but natural that the tea estates of the state have become a natural ally in the conservation of elephants in this landscape, not only because of the landscape transformation caused by these tea gardens but also because the majority of human-wildlife conflict events occur in tea estates. Some unique interventions have recently been employed to mitigate human-wildlife conflict. A unique experiment is being carried out by an NGO, Haathibondhu, in which paddy is being cultivated in an area of 200 bighas in Ronghang-Hatikhuli village, located in Nagaon district, exclusively for the consumption of elephants.
Future of elephants in Northeast India
The future of elephants in Northeast India seems to be bleak unless immediate measures are taken to secure and increase suitable habitats and corridors for them and urgently address human-elephant conflict. Elephants need large contiguous forests to move and fulfil their dietary and reproductive needs. Ensuring this is a herculean task and perhaps success in such an endeavour can alone determine the future of elephants in Northeast India. There are around 32 notified elephant reserves in India including five in Assam[xvii] and 101 corridors, but none of these, unfortunately, enjoy formal legal protection, unlike our tiger reserves and other Protected Areas. There has recently been a huge outcry at the opening of coal mining inside the Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve and this is a case in point. While restoring elephant corridors, the consent of people living in these corridors must be taken and the entire process should involve voluntary relocation. For example, the Wildlife Trust of India purchased over six acres of land to relocate a village called Ram Terang, which was initially located within the Kalapahar-Doigurung Elephant Corridor. The relocation took place after 19 households voluntary agreed to this shift. In other corridors, which are not purchasable, the human-elephant coexistence model could be put in place, but with proper mitigation measures that ensure minimal negative interactions between humans and elephants.
Most human-elephant conflicts in India occur in the regions outside Protected Areas. Managing elephant populations in densely human-dominated areas then becomes key to the persistence of elephants in most of their current habitats. Although the Wildlife Trust of India has identified many elephant corridors, the exercise has mostly relied on subjective evaluation. Identification of corridors, based on the actual tracking of elephant movement is essential for understanding the dynamics of their ranging and movement patterns across a fragmented landscape although alternative methods have been tested[xviii].
It is now becoming an imperative that an extensive restoration programme be initiated to restore the degraded elephant habitats and corridors in Assam and the adjoining regions of the Northeast India. Losing precious crops, coupled with bureaucratic hurdles in receiving compensation amounts, has forced several people to resort to retaliatory killings of elephants. Timely disbursement of compensation amount would thus go a long way in addressing human–wildlife conflict. The problem has also become exacerbated due to climate change-induced repeated monsoon failure over the last decade. Recently, 18 elephants died due to a lightning strike in the Nagaon district of Assam. Experts believe that the frequency and intensity of lightning, such as in this case, have increased due to climate change.
There are several guidelines[xix] for mitigating conflict with elephants and other potentially dangerous wildlife, when they venture into densely populated areas but due to a lack of awareness, such measures are hardly followed. More extensive cooperation and coordination amongst the police, forest department and the revenue department are crucial in controlling unruly crowds and in capturing or chasing away elephants from conflict zones. In fact, the presence of a large crowd stresses out elephants and more damage is then caused.
Some of the recent policies by the Government of India, notably the expansion of oil palm plantations in Northeast India, pose grave threats to the survival of elephants in this landscape, for two reasons. First, where rates of crop depredation are high, people might prefer a shift to extreme monocultures. That is because plantation of unpalatable monoculture cash crops are safe bets as elephants do not depredate such crops. Secondly, some of the forest areas and those along corridors might be cleared for oil palm cultivation. Furthermore, the proposed dilution of the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 could pave way for the conversion of many forested areas into non-forest areas. Many agrarian communities are increasingly sharing their landscape with elephants and there is growing evidence that agricultural landscapes may soon become the prime, rather than marginal, habitats for Asian elephants[xx]. In such cases, human-elephant conflict will become inevitable and our conservation focus should then veer towards preventing and mitigating such conflict while ameliorating the status of present elephant habitats.
From conflict to coexistence?
Unless they are physically removed from human-dominated areas or their degraded habitats are restored, elephants will be sharing space with humans, far more intensively in future. In such a scenario, is it possible for people to at all coexist with elephants? There are extreme cases of intolerance, where elephants, which are otherwise revered as gods, are poisoned or electrocuted, dubbed[xxi] as they were by the name ‘Laden’, after the infamous terrorist. When the same elephants, however, die, people throng to pay their respects. This is a unique conundrum that is becoming common across the Indian subcontinent. Instead of considering the prevailing human-elephant relationships as either being mere conflict or coexistence, we should perhaps treat them as being in a continuum, where the attitudes, perspectives and the actions of people range from extreme intolerance to empathetic stewardship. It is perhaps in acknowledging this continuum that the solutions to understanding and managing negative human-elephant interactions lie.
Satargaon is a village with around 69 households, nestling inside the Rani Reserve Forest. It is primarily inhabited by members of the Rabha community, who frequently encounter elephants in their backyard. Due to this continuous presence of elephants, the villagers cannot cultivate any paddy. Most of them derive resources from the nearby forest to meet their daily needs. It is fascinating that there has not yet been a single instance of elephant depredation or of any elephant-related casualty in the village. People say that the elephants come, and they let the animals roam freely, walk along the village roads and soon vanish inside the forest. It is perhaps in remarkably tolerant villages like Satargaon, where we must search for the ways forward that will ensure that a day will come when we can peacefully live with elephants. And such a day must come soon, before we lose our elephants forever.
[i]Elephants have been mentioned in the ancient texts of Kalidasa and Kautilya, in the Mahabharata and in the writings of Hiuen Tsang, a Chinese pilgrim-scholar and traveller.
[ii]John M’Cosh, in his book Topography of Assam, says that about 700 to 1,000 elephants were exported every year at an average value of Rs.300 each.
[iv] The elephant population on the north bank of river Brahmaputra is distributed across northwestern West Bengal, the Himalayan foothills, Bhabar-Terai belt, most of the northern districts of Assam up to eastern Arunachal Pradesh. In the 1950s, this elephant distribution showed connectivity to the neighbouring country of Myanmar through eastern Arunachal Pradesh, which is, however, now defunct. The population on the south bank of the Brahmaputra is distributed as three populations: The eastern, distributed in Arunachal Pradesh, eastern Assam, Nagaland; central, in certain parts of Assam and Meghalaya; and the western population, found in western Assam and Meghalaya.
[v]Lele, N. and Joshi, P.K., 2009. Analysing deforestation rates, spatial forest cover changes and identifying critical areas of forest cover changes in North-East India during 1972–1999. Environmental monitoring and assessment, 156(1), pp.159-170.
[vii]Habitats that are connected through narrow linear strips of forest or other favourable habitats aid in the dispersal of individual elephants and thus help in the mixing of genetically viable populations. Corridors, perceived to ameliorate the effects of habitat fragmentation, are linear habitats that connect two or more large block of habitats and enhance or maintain the viability of wildlife population by facilitating their movement.
[viii]Choudhury, A., 2007. Impact of border fence along India-Bangladesh border on elephant movement. Gajah, 26, pp.27-30.
[ix]Srivastava, S., Singh, T.P., Singh, H., Kushwaha, S.P.S. and Roy, P.S., 2002. Assessment of large-scale deforestation in Sonitpur district of Assam. Current science, pp.1479-1484.
[x]Chartier, L., Zimmermann, A. and Ladle, R.J., 2011. Habitat loss and human-elephant conflict in Assam, India: does a critical threshold exist?. Oryx, 45(4), pp.528-533.
[xiii]Barua, M., Bhagwat, S.A. and Jadhav, S., 2013. The hidden dimensions of human-wildlife conflict: Health impacts, opportunity and transaction costs. Biological Conservation, 157, pp.309-316.
[xiv]Davies, T.E., Wilson, S., Hazarika, N., Chakrabarty, J., Das, D., Hodgson, D.J. and Zimmermann, A., 2011. Effectiveness of intervention methods against crop‐raiding elephants. Conservation Letters, 4(5), pp.346-354.
[xvi]The Sonitpur model, as they called this partnership, includes “the use of kumki or captive elephants to drive wild elephants from fields and tea estates, training anti-depredation teams to facilitate elephant drives and empowering the local community – (these) have shown a marked decrease in human deaths and reduction in crop and property damage over the last decade.”
[xvii]Assam has five elephant reserves (ER) situated on both the northern and southern banks of the Brahmaputra. The Chirang-Ripu ER and Sonitpur ER, on the northern bank, aid in the transboundary movement of elephants between the state of Arunachal Pradesh and the neighbouring country of Bhutan. The Dihing Patkai ER, Kaziranga-Karbi Anglong ER and Dhansiri-Lungding ER, on the southern bank, in contrast, ensure connectivity between eastern and southern Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Meghalaya.
[xviii]The telemetry method, which involves fitting radiotelemetry devices on elephants, may be desirable but is quite expensive. Resistance-based methods, which again rely on subjective evaluation by experts is useful to understand the movement of elephants but is often fraught with several shortcomings and barriers that are usually overlooked while mapping their movements. An alternative method of tracking elephant movement was recently carried out by Divya Vasudev and her team, covering a large landscape, ranging from the Nambor Wildlife Sanctuary of Assam to the Garo Hills of Meghalaya. They merged the modelling approach with the data obtained in the field through questionnaire surveys to identify the factors responsible for the movement of elephants across this massive landscape. Their results suggest that forests facilitate connectivity, but the surrounding matrix also plays an extremely important contributory role in elephant dispersal. They also found that elephants preferred locations with high vegetation cover, close to forests and with low human population densities. Such fine-scale work covering a large landscape helps us to understand the movement of elephants and its drivers, and perhaps design mitigative or preventive measures that would not only lessen conflict with humans but also ensure their conservation.
[xx]de la Torre, J.A., Wong, E.P., Lechner, A.M., Zulaikha, N., Zawawi, A., Abdul‐Patah, P., Saaban, S., Goossens, B. and Campos‐Arceiz, A., 2020. There will be conflict–agricultural landscapes are prime, rather than marginal, habitats for Asian elephants. Animal Conservation.