PIL filed in HC on man-elephant conflict. Reads a headline in The Assam Tribune on September 22, 2000. An environmental group has filed a public interest litigation at the Gauhati High Court which in turn has generated serious concern amongst the environmentalists as well as the common people, reported the daily.
But has anybody seriously thought what exactly is human-elephant conflict?
The definition though a bit subjective can be broadly placed as “any human-elephant interaction, which results in negative effects on human social, economic or cultural life, on elephant conservation or on the environment. [Adopted by the IUCN / SSC]. Major situations associated with this conflict generally harbours around man’s direct impact on elephant habitat and reduction in elephant numbers and the elephant’s impact on human interests. Besides these social, administrative and political problems may also create or aggravate the conflict situation.
Conflict between humans and elephants is widely understood/misunderstood within the conservation, political and common man’s circle as the direct conflict as explained by the IUCN/SSC definition of conflict, and there is also a further agreement on the need for immediate mitigation of the negative aspects of this conflict. In reality, conflict is but a part of an age-old complex interaction, which is existent in, all elephant inhabited countries for centuries and that the failure to understand this is the root cause of all possible conflicts, which is today taking place on a daily basis.
The total wild elephant population in our country adds to around 28,000, of which 33 percent lives in the Northeastern region, which is also the home of about 56 per cent of the total domesticated elephants in the country. Adversely, it is very sad to note that there is a rapid decline in the elephant population of the northeastern region in comparison to the rest of India and the major reason for this is the heavy loss of prime elephant habitats. The Forest Survey of India has recorded a loss of 1,800 sq km of forestland of the northeastern region within a period of only eight years from 1991-1999. In fact, the actual loss may even be more. The Nonai-Rowta-Balipara-Chariduar stretch itself accounts for about 1,500 sq km of forest area under estimated encroachment. Since the human-elephant conflict is indirectly proportional to the loss of their habitat there is obviously a rapid increase in conflict along with the rapid decline in forest cover.
Considering the complex sociopolitical situation prevalent in the entire northeastern region, it is not only within the grasp of the Department of Environment and Forests to manage this conflict situation. It requires a more extensive foray of people and organizations such as “the conservationists, NGOs, the district administration, police, lawyers, veterinary personnel, agriculture experts, research institutes, tea gardens and of course the common man.” [Director, Project Elephant]. A perfect example of the lack of understanding of the situation is the case of the rail head which crosses the Chakradeo in Guwahati wherein about five elephans were killed in the recent past by a speeding train and many more earlier. This rail head was initially planned to pass through Deepor Beel which is famous for the various bird species that frequent the place. A huge hue and cry was raised by environmentalists, bird lovers and other do-gooders and finally the rail head was diverted and now constructed and made to pass through Chakradeo considering that this was not an elephant corridor since the corridor had been recognized elsewhere by the experts. But what the experts failed to note was that the area was not a corridor but an integral part of the elephant habitat itself. Thus the inevitable, frequent death of elephants by speeding trains. Failure to coordinate and lack of proper understanding leads to such follies, which is seen to aggravate the conflict situation further.
Information gathered regarding the human-elephant conflict is of utmost importance in managing conflict. The subject of conflict being a part of controversial arena, opinions too vary greatly, thus obtaining a balanced view of the issue from a wide range of people of that particular region or area is a primary requirement to commence the management process. Recording of gathered data/ information is the second important step to be ascertained. This enhances the reliability of the information.
Human-elephant conflict should always be ascertained over a period of time since the number and types of incidents are often variable over the years. Therefore, the problem is best understood if the information is gathered over a minimum period of three years thereby ascertaining certain frequency or pattern of conflict. The conflict problem cannot be managed or mitigated effectively if the conflict managers do not have an idea of the number or type of incidents occurring in different places at different times.
Ascertaining the true picture of the human-elephant conflict requires knowledge of the severity of the problem, since one incident is different from the other. The problem has to be understood as a whole over a certain period of time by acquiring knowledge of the types of crops damaged, other property damaged, quantitative measures of damage, direct and indirect effects, effective systems of judging the severity of the incident etc.
Managing human-elephant conflict also urgently calls for identifying the elephant types of a particular population responsible for the problem. This accelerates the mitigation process and is also one of the main causes of misunderstanding the cause of conflict. Since distinguishing individual elephants is quite difficult and the common man being so frightened of these marauding herds will more often than not provide information on ‘hear and say’ since they are not close to the animals. Nonetheless, every elephant is conveniently referred to as a ‘rogue’ who causes the problems even if they are not individually identified. Lastly, understanding the attitudes of the people affected by this conflict is a necessary component in human-elephant conflict management. Attitudes may vary from exaggeration of the problem ie people reporting more incidents than that which actually occurred or reporting of more serious damage than the actual damage , unreported incidents to superstitious beliefs regarding elephants. For instance, in Meghalaya (Garo Hills) the local belief that the elephants hear all that you say prevents many people from reporting incidents of human-elephant conflict.
The main problem in managing human-elephant conflict arises from the fact that elephants are considered ‘government animals’ and are greatly feared when they behave as a problem animal. Although this fact is aptly justified in the case of a subsistence farmer who loses his entire harvest in one nightly raid by the elephants. But in most cases the issue can also be easily exaggerated or politicized at the community levels to meet other gains.
Habitat regeneration or changes in the land use pattern is by far the major mitigation means since this will reduce the spatial competition between the elephants and the humans. Stopping of all encroachments, afforestation of deforested areas, relocating all agricultural activities out of elephant range, reducing dependence of the local economy of the affected areas on agriculture and proper legislation will definitely help in mitigating the conflict situation.
Besides these permanent solutions, temporary mitigation measures, all tried and tested, seem to vary from region to region, especially animal barriers. These barriers being terrain specific are very effective in some areas and completely ineffective in others. Capture and translocation too involves a heavy cost and various logistic problems such as problem elephant identification, choice of place to which the animal is to be translocated, method of capture, etc.
Compensatory schemes for elephant damage is another time tested mitigation measure but in most places has raised many problems than effective solutions. This is because there is a major conceptual flaw in this system of monetary compensation, which addresses only the symptoms, and not the cause of the problem. This largely fails due to the inability to decrease the level of the problem, reduction in incentive for self-defence by the people, slow administrative / faulty logistics, blatant corruption and unequal payments leading to social injustice.
By far the temporary preventive measure still working satisfactorily till date are the traditional methods of counteracting the elephants by bursting crackers, keeping guard of crop fields and of course keeping out of the elephants’ way. Hus, conflict and conflict management are not only about ‘flawless arrangement to protect the habitats’ or simply measuring the damages and compensating people. It is more important to understand what the real problem is. Otherwise we would end up finding solutions to something that wasn’t a problem at all in the first place.