Human-elephant conflicts on the rise in India

Posted: 4 December 2006

In India, the elephant is revered as the living embodiment of elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesha. But even here tensions are on the rise between growing populations of humans and elephants in search of food and a more suitable habitat, as Joanna Benn and Jan Vertefeuille report.

A temple devoted to elephant-headed god Ganesha, Assam, India. Photo: WWF AREAS / Jan Vertefeuille
A temple devoted to elephant-headed god Ganesha, Assam, India. Photo: WWF AREAS / Jan Vertefeuille
Even in Hindu-dominated India, where the elephant is revered as the living embodiment of the popular elephant-headed god Ganesha, tensions are on the rise between growing human and elephant populations. A temple to Ganesha in Assam, India.© WWF AREAS / Jan Vertefeuille
When an elephant calf was found dead on the Sesar tea estate last year in the northeastern Indian state of Assam, workers there buried the body and erected a small temple to Ganesha over the grave. They hoped this tribute to the popular Hindu god would appease a nearby herd of elephants that had been wreaking havoc on their crops.

The elephants, however, trampled the temple soon after it was erected.

This remote part of India, known as the North Bank Landscape - north of the mighty Brahmaputra River and extending into the Indian State of Arunachal Pradesh, as well as Bhutan - is home to one of the largest populations of Asian elephants left in the world. Nearly 3,000 elephants, or about 10 per cent of the species' population, live here. So do 75 million people.

Human encroachment

Originally a continuous belt of rich forest cover, relatively recent and largely uncontrolled human migration has greatly impacted the North Bank Landscape region. Since 1972, nearly 14 per cent of the area's natural forest has been lost, predominantly in Assam. Human encroachment has not only significantly reduced elephant habitat, but has also disrupted important migratory corridors.

North Bank Landscape, northeastern India, Photo: WWF AREAS
North Bank Landscape, northeastern India, Photo: WWF AREAS
Bordering India's mighty Brahmaputra River in the south and the foothills of the eastern Himalayas in the north, the North Bank Landscape encompasses about 14,000 km² in the northeastern Indian states of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. This area is home to as many as 3,000 Asian elephants - up to 10 per cent of the species' total population.© WWF AREAS
As forests are disappearing at a rapid rate - often converted for development and cleared for farming by illegal settlers - elephants are moving into areas where people live in search of food, water and even safe places to give birth. Consequently, they have been responsible for damage to crops, infrastructure, homes and, sometimes, people. In retaliation, the elephants have been poisoned, shot, stoned and harassed.

Since 2001, growing conflict between people and elephants has resulted in the deaths of 125 humans and 70 elephants, and has caused millions of dollars worth of crop damage.

"Villagers still think elephants are okay. We even give them our fields," says Birgit Tirki, from the Assam village of Okapanbari, whose brother-in-law was killed in an elephant attack at night on his home when the family was sleeping.

"But when they kill people and break into houses, it is no longer acceptable."

Early warning

The North Bank Landscape is home to some of the most biodiverse forests - from the Eastern Himalayan broadleaf forests to the Himalayan subtropical broadleaf forests, from the Brahmaputra Valley semi-evergreen forests to the Terai and Duar grasslands. Though much of the forests are legally protected from logging, a drive through the area shows just how badly they have been affected by illegal settlement. Many villages have been erected along roads with barely a tree left in sight. Ironically, signs still remain proclaiming the area a forest reserve.

"Human activities have fragmented the forests, and with it, destroyed many of the elephants' ancestral migration corridors," says Tariq Aziz, head of WWF-India's elephant and rhino programmes. "If you encroach upon those corridors, conflict is bound to happen.''

Elephants takes refuge in a tea estate in Assam, India. Photo: WWF AREAS / Rommell Shunmugam
Elephants takes refuge in a tea estate in Assam, India. Photo: WWF AREAS / Rommell Shunmugam
A large herd of elephants takes refuge in a tea estate in Assam, a favorite shelter for elephants lacking forest cover.© WWF AREAS / Rommell Shunmugam
Aziz's team at WWF-India has come up with an innovative approach to reducing this human-elephant conflict. To address the most pressing, short-term problem of crop-raiding and resulting problems, WWF, in close collaboration with the Forest Department of Assam, has set up an early warning system to alert villagers when elephants are on their way, and has trained and equipped them to drive away the elephants using non-violent methods.

Volunteer squads

On the Sesar tea estate, for example, a small group of volunteers now camp out for a month at a time in tents and patrol the area. When elephants approach, these squads - armed only with searchlights and firecrackers - run and chase elephants away from the estate and the workers' crops. There are over 70 such village-based squads in the North Bank Landscape serving as the first line of defence. They have proved to be highly successful in the past three years, not only in diverting elephants away from crops, but also in anticipating where and when the elephants are likely to appear at night.

"They've been coming for 15 years and I've been chasing them for that time too," explains Suramanda Gogai, a villager dubbed the "one-man army" for the zeal he shows for chasing elephants.

"Since we have been equipped and trained, things are now better. The best way to scare elephants is to wave the searchlight into an elephant's eyes."

Flying elephants

Domestic elephants with their elephant handlers help drive off wild, crop-raiding elephants, Assam, India. © WWF International / Joanna Benn
Domestic elephants with their elephant handlers help drive off wild, crop-raiding elephants, Assam, India. © WWF International / Joanna Benn
Rapid response squads of specially-trained domestic elephants with their manhouts (elephant handlers) also help drive off wild, crop-raiding elephants. Tarajulie tea estate, Assam, India.© WWF International / Joanna Benn
Within areas identified as human-elephant "hot spots", there is a second line of defence to deal with crop-raiding elephants. This involves rapid response squads of specially-trained domestic elephants, known as kunkies, who with their mahouts (elephant handlers), help drive off their wild brethren. Such an innovative technique has also proven highly successful.

One recent sunny afternoon during the height of the harvest season, a "flying elephant" squad went into battle at the Tarajulie tea estate to push out a herd of nearly 40 elephants, including a big angry bull that had taken refuge during the day under the plantation's shaded trees. The event attracted a crowd of tea plantation workers and their families, as the mahouts - armed with firecrackers and guns (used only to fire in the air to scare the wild elephants) - drove their kunkies after the herd. The elephants were chased from one area of the tea estate towards the river, until they were forced back to a forest sanctuary across the river from where they came.

"Reducing conflict and raising awareness is very important," says WWF's Anupam Sarmah, coordinator of the global conservation organization's work in the North Bank Landscape.

"By showing local communities that there is an effective, non-lethal way to protect their crops from elephants, we're actually rebuilding goodwill towards elephants. I hope we can give the elephants a better environment than what is available now." Hot chillies

In addition to volunteer squads on the ground, WWF is introducing other, less confrontational means to deter elephants from communities and their crops. This includes educating local farmers about how to make their crops less appealing and keeping their home brews away from the house (many elephants have actually developed a taste for local rice beer and moonshine!). And testing another innovative tactic that has been used with great success in Africa to deter crop-raiding: hot chillies.

Either mixed with engine oil on rope barriers around the fields or mixed with dried elephant dung and burned to make "chilli bombs", the spicy pepper seems to work as an effective elephant repellent, especially when they are made with bhootjolakias or demon chillies - one of the world's strongest green chilli varieties grown locally in Assam.

Currently, a WWF field team has fenced off two plots of sugar cane - another elephant favourite - with chilli-smeared ropes in India's northeast Sonitpur District, which falls within the North Bank Landscape. "Just standing near it for a few minutes makes the eyes water," says Sarmah, "We hope that Asian elephants will prove to be as repelled by spicy food as their African cousins and will be unable to bear the sting of the pungent spice in the air."

Elephant corridorts

Although many of these short-term solutions have been effective in keeping elephants away from housing, crops and schools, it is long-term solutions, like land-use planning and reforestation of natural habitat, which will really help alleviate the human-wildlife conflict in this part of India. This includes securing critical elephant corridors.

Through the WWF Asian Rhino and Elephant Action Strategy (AREAS) - created in 1998 to conserve the remaining populations of these endangered large mammals and their habitats - key forest corridors in need of rehabilitation have been identified. The aim is to secure such corridors across the landscape in India, including connecting large elephant habitats between the Pakke Wildlife Sanctuary and the Doimara Riverine Forest along the Kameng River, a tributary of the Brahmaputra.

"This means working outside and between protected areas to minimize threats to elephants, and to empower communities to participate in long-term conservation and management of these animals," says Tariq Aziz. "We are combining cutting-edge conservation biology with effective monitoring, community development and public awareness campaigns so that human-wildlife conflict can be reduced."

"This will not only help build a new consciousness among all stakeholders involved," Aziz adds, "but will lead to a more favourable public and political opinion towards conservation and for addressing the root causes of this conflict."

Meanwhile WWF field assistant Sanjay Gogoi gets just three hours' sleep a night during peak crop-raiding season - September to December is the rice harvest - and spends his nights and days giving out spotlights, liaising with local people and organizing drives to keep marauding elephants at bay.

"The team calls me the GPS unit because I know all the roads, all the elephant routes and where all the lights are," he says with a smile. "I hope we can achieve our goals of getting habitat back for the elephants and helping people. That would make me really happy."

And maybe then, the elephant gods will be appeased.

Joanna Benn is Communications Manager for WWF's Global Species Programme. Jan Vertefeuille is the Communications Manager for WWF's Asian Rhino and Elephant Action Strategy (AREAS) Programme.

Note: The North Bank Landscape encompasses about 14,000 sq km in the northeastern Indian states of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh - home to as many as 3,000 Asian elephants. It is also home to significant populations of greater one-horned rhinos, tigers, and clouded leopards.

Although revered by many Asian cultures, the Asian elephant is being pushed to extinction. There are only 25,600-32,750 thought to roam wild in the tropical forests of Asia, less than a tenth of the number of wild African elephants. These remaining populations are mostly small, isolated, and fragmented because their ancient migratory routes and habitat have been interrupted by expanding human encroachment.