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Navigating The Human-Elephant Conflict

An elephant encounter in a zoo can be the highlight of your day, but for rural communities in South Asia, the encounter is one of economic and political turmoil. Human population booms and land use changes in India and Sri Lanka are the key drivers of the endangerment of Asian elephants. About 18% of the global human population lives in this region, which has stirred contentious competition between elephants and humans for land. The competition for land is the leading cause of endangerment for the Asian Elephant. Elephant populations are estimated to have declined 50% over the past 75 years as habitat fragmentation has caused the populations to fracture into subspecies. The ever-shrinking habitats have caused an increase in human-elephant encounters—with the clashes costing both elephant and human lives. The interspecies conflict calls for an innovative approach to conservation that mitigates elephant destruction peacefully, changes human perceptions of the elephant, and supports the poor rural villages affected by elephant activity. 

Asian elephants traverse large plots of land in India and Sri Lanka in search for water and nutritious food. There have been strong conservation efforts to mitigate elephant-human conflict by preserving some of the elephants’ ancient migratory track. However, much of the conserved land comes with high opportunity costs. Elephants often stray out of the boundaries of government designated habitats, making it hard to control their activity. Elephants take advantage of the vast fields of nutritious crops near their migration routes. They enter agricultural land late at night to eat valuable crops and stomp through plantations and villages, ruining homes and worsening food security in the process. Most of the raided farmland belongs to small farmers living close to the poverty line. Therefore, the loss of crops and food can mean both financial and food insecurity. Killing elephants is illegal, but threatening them can be dangerous too. In an attempt to protect their families and their livelihoods, farmers often confront raiding elephants by trying to thwart them away with rocks, firecrackers, and shooting blank rounds into the air. The threat often leads to heightened aggression from the elephant and can trigger an attack. The loss of life on both sides of the interaction has politicized conservation efforts. Human-elephant conflict has created a big challenge for conservationists. Solutions toward conflict mitigation acknowledge the importance of elephants to the ecosystem while upholding human safety and development. 

Much of conservation work involves listening to the marginalized people affected by the human-elephant conflict and advocating for them when proposing conservation policy. Village communities give accounts of the traumatic effects elephant activity has caused: breaking into homes, causing house fires, destroying valuable crops, and even killing community members. In response to this frustration, the government has provided monetary compensation for losses due to conflict. Government funds compensate for some cases, but many families report not getting the money because of corruption issues. NGOs mostly take on the role of compensating families as a result. A conservation group working in India, The Elephant Project, has contributed 480 million dollars to funding compensation from 2016-2019 for individuals affected by elephants. Crop damage accounted for 84% of these cases and 67% of the compensation amount. Human death accounted for 2.2% of these cases and 20% of the compensation amount. Compensation records also help conservationists track which areas have the highest rates of incidence, as well as the behavior of elephant herds. This data helps organizations identify which areas need quick intervention. However, many of the affected individuals have complained about the compensation programs; the elaborate documentation process poses a problem to the high rates of illiteracy in the affected communities. Compensation amounts are usually delayed and often do not properly account for the losses.

A good way to prevent the human-elephant conflict is to allow for enough conserved habitat so elephants are not compelled to enter human encampments. Tracking elephant routes allows for better conservation land proposals. Even so, proposed conservation land is impeded by other developments, such as industrial interests that fragment ecosystems further and instigate human-elephant interactions. However, elephants are unaware of these industrial interests and government borders. Following this logic, researchers have proposed creating a natural corridor along traditional migratory routes is essential in reducing human-elephant encounters. Peaceful elephant deterrence requires a substantial amount of innovation. Experimental efforts to keep elephants out of human encampments include programs such as Elephants and Bees, where beehives are put on the fences of the surrounding villages of elephant habitats. Elephants are afraid of bees because they can swarm an elephant and sting them on sensitive skin, causing them to feel threatened and flee the area. The presence of the hives also benefits the rural communities as they can acquire additional income through the benefits of increased plant pollination, along with selling honey produced by the hives. Bee fences have been successful in mitigating elephant conflict between farmers in Africa using African bee species, but there has been a lack of data to suggest if Asian bee populations are successful at reducing elephant encroachment. 

The conflicts between elephants and humans are one of many interspecies conflicts. As climate change continues to push planetary boundaries and wipe out the world’s biodiversity, the pressure to find a solution to these conflicts is increasing. Protecting our existing ecosystems is essential to mitigating the negative effects of climate change. Wildlife loss causes the collapse of ecosystems and environmental services, such as absorbing global emissions, preventing the spread of disease, and food chain balance. Animal conservation is in the best interest of humanity and rethinking social development to include conservation will help sustain the long-term flourishment of society and ecology. Solutions like community forums and innovative tactics such as beehive fences take into account and prioritize both human development and the health of the planet. 

 

Sources

“Human Elephant Conflict Africa.” Elephants & Bees, 24 July 2019, https://elephantsandbees.com/human-elephant-conflict-africa/.  

 

“Mapping Human-Elephant Conflict Hotspots from Compensation Records.” Mongabay-India, Mongabay, 22 July 2020,

india.mongabay.com/2020/07/mapping-human-elephant-conflict-hotspots-from-compensation-records.  

“India Population (2021) – Worldometer.” Worldometer, Worldometer, www.worldometers.info/world-population/india-population.

 

National Geographic. “Watch: Elephants 101.” Animals, National Geographic, www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/facts/asian-elephant#:%7E:text=Threats%20to%20wild%20Asian%20elephant,some%2030%2C000%20poached%20each%20year

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