It sounds like an unlikely set of words with little to do with one another. And yet, over the past few days, a story has emerged which links them in the most appalling way.
The last news item I read before going to bed a few months ago, was about a wild female elephant in India which had wandered out of a forest, in search of food. Pineapples filled with explosives were laid out by local people in a bid to deter wild boars from damaging crops. The elephant ate one or some of these pineapples and the firecrackers exploded in the animal’s mouth. Although veterinarians were on hand to try to tranquilize the elephant and help in her predicament, she placed herself in the middle of a river possibly due to her increased fear of humans. The cool water may also have provided some relief for the explosion in her mouth. Once in the river, it was impossible for the vets to tranquilize her as it would require her to lie down and that meant an inevitable drowning. Other domesticated elephants were brought in to try to coax her out of the river so she could be treated but she refused to move. The damage to the elephant’s mouth was extensive and she starved to death. An autopsy revealed that this female had been a few months pregnant and the foetus was almost intact.
The tragic truth is that this is not an isolated case. India has a human population of 1.4 billion and shares its resources with a rich diversity of wildlife. In some cases, “sharing” may not be the right word. Access for resources and space becomes a real battle between humans and wild animals, especially at the boundary of protected areas and reserves. As humans edge closer and closer towards forests, clearing them away for fields and cultivation, the buffer zones between humans and wildlife diminish in size. The space given to wildlife is ever shrinking and in their pursuit for survival and resources, they inevitably come into close contact with humans.
Wild elephants often find themselves in human-dominated landscapes which were previously covered in forests. Asian elephants are listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species. Their global population is estimated to be between 40,000 and 50,000 with a decreasing general population trend. Elephants need to eat about 200-220 kg of plant matter and drink about 190 litres of water a day, meaning that if they stay in one place for too long, they would deplete these natural resources. Hence, elephants migrate; but with their habitat increasingly converted to farmlands, the loss and fragmentation of continuous forests forces not only elephants but other wildlife out into human-dominated landscapes. Sadly, because of India’s ever-growing human population, wildlife on the subcontinent loses more and more habitat. Human-elephant conflicts are rife across the country; although different techniques have been applied to avoid and reduce these conflicts, elephants and many other species continue to die at the hands of humans. It is an extremely complex situation involving the poorest of humans who are protecting their hard-earned crops, and an endangered species fighting for space and resources.
A recent study in Guinea (1) has shown that chimps are deliberately willing to put themselves in harm’s way to obtain crops which provide greater energetic benefits over wild foods. The study showed that chimps which regularly fed on cultivated crops were healthier, reached maturity earlier, grew bigger and lived longer. Humans have over centuries carefully selected certain plants to cultivate based on their palatability and high energy yield making these crops an attractive foraging option for wildlife all over the world. Research (2) has shown that the crops which are among the most attractive to elephants include finger millet, maize, sugar cane and paddy when they ripen. Elephants raid the fields but will also visit storage areas to access harvested grains. Farmers have attempted several strategies to protect their crops and avoid great financial loss. Traditionally, farmers would spend the night in “machans”, elevated platforms made from natural materials, in or at the edge of their field. As soon as wild animals were spotted, the farmers would beat drums and make noise and burst firecrackers or fire weapons to scare them away. These interactions can result in the loss of animal and at times human life. As biologists became aware of the problem, they began to look for solutions to reduce the loss of lives on both sides and in a study in Assam where three elephants were equipped with GPS collars, their strategy became clear: during the season when the crops were ready to be harvested, after taking cover in the forest the whole day, they would appear in fields to feed at dawn and would cause considerable damage and financial loss for the farmers. Afterall, a few hours in a field with highly nutritious crops can feed an elephant more efficiently than the same amount of time and food in a forest; hence the attraction. The aim of the collars was to locate them when the crops were ready for harvest and warn the farmers in time to save their crops. Other methods include using electric fences, motion-activated lights and firecrackers/firearms to scare away wild animals. Some farmers have opted to cultivate inedible crops like cotton or lines their fields with chilli plants to dissuade wildlife raids. More recently, honey bees have successfully been used for small-scale crop protection (3).
What I found interesting and quite disturbing was the reaction of some researchers and biologists across the country following this tragedy. The most common comments were “it happens all the time” or “it’s not an isolated case”. It is true, elephants regularly die in human-wildlife related conflicts often in horrendous ways. However, the complacency with which these statements were delivered was quite shocking to me. It sounded like: “it happens all the time, why is this case any different and why make such a noise about it?”. Perhaps the current pandemic and lock-down has reduced the number of news items, moving stories like these into the headlines, reaching the masses who are oblivious to such circumstances. Perhaps the way she died and the fact that she was pregnant, horrified people enough for them to react. Whatever the reason, the news gained momentum and even appeared in many international newspapers. As in many fields (racism in police actions, domestic violence, casteism, rapes, etc.), high profile cases bring the issue to the attention of the public at large and often forces the authorities to take action and bring about much needed changes.
The real problem I see here is that although people in the environmental field and those directly involved in wildlife conflicts are fully aware of these situations, they don’t seem to acknowledge that the average Indian is ignorant of what’s happening at the frontline of the battle for resources. But now that people in cities and urban areas around the world learn about these conflicts, perhaps it’s time to change the way these struggles are resolved. “It’s always been done like this” is no longer an acceptable position. Conservation strategies must adapt to the ever more challenging situation. Regarding human population growth, it is a simple mathematical fact: there can be no unlimited growth in a limited system.
Furthermore, some biologists say, “it’s not about the individual, it’s about the species”. I disagree; when it comes to an endangered species, every individual counts. That’s the whole point of protecting endangered species. Sexually dimorphic species like Asian elephants, where the males carry tusks and females don’t, are particularly vulnerable to loss of individuals. Extensive poaching in Southern India has shown just how important every individual is; at one point there was one male for 122 females in 1987 in the Periyar Tiger Reserve (4). Such ratios can be catastrophic for the genetic diversity of future generations.
Few wild species have the cultural importance that elephants have in India. The elephant headed God Ganesha, is the patron of arts and sciences and a deity linked to wisdom, intellect, success and prosperity. Elephants were used in wars, for logging as well as during religious ceremonies. Indian kings of all faiths travelled on intricately decorated elephants while shikars in the past hunted from the backs of elephants. The close relationship between Indians and elephants has evolved over time. For the long-term survival of India’s elephants, we must find and introduce crop and village protection strategies that are harmless to the animals, and we must enforce wildlife protection laws. It is a monumental task but killing endangered species is not the answer.
2 Gubbi S (2012).Patterns and correlates of human–elephant conflict around a south Indian reserve. Biological Conservation 148 (2012) 88–95
3 King et al. (2018) Wild Sri Lankan elephants retreat from the sound of disturbed Asian honey bees. Current Biology Vol. 28, Issue 2 64- 65; https://www.sustainability-times.com/environmental-protection/keeping-wild-elephants-away-from-crops-with-buzzing-bees/?fbclid=IwAR1ri-cgWsAqhnGpKPRwD9Cu-DAkdZqDKUuDqBQAT-XJ3_O4GOHQFI0pv0c &
4 Chandran, P. M. (1990). Population dynamics of elephants in Periyar Tiger Reserve, Kerala. In The proceedings of the elephant symposium: 51–56. Karunakaran, C. K. (Ed.). Thiruvananthapuram: Kerala Forest Department.