Sunday, March 14, 2010

Desperate Neighbours

Published in The Hindu 14 March 2010

 “When there are elephants around, it does something to me” the man said quietly as he rubbed his belly in a universal gesture of nausea. We were visiting his hamlet in a tea garden near Siliguri, north Bengal, to investigate a recent incident of ‘shop lifting’ and destruction by a tusker locally known as Belcha (so named for his spade shaped tusks.). The villagers said that he had destroyed three shops and a granary that year. The ramshackle board and tin sheet shop was so flimsy that the elephant must have found it as easy as filliping a dolls’ house. Cookie jars, ubiquitous accessories in any village shop, still lay broken where they had fallen amongst the debris. Any treats lying exposed had long since been foraged. “What did he want from the shop?” I wondered out loud. “Salt and biscuits,” was the erstwhile shopkeeper’s tired answer. Enquiries about other elephant events pointed us to a neighbouring hamlet, and like vultures we followed in the wake of death and destruction.

The widow at Basti No. 5

At this hamlet, simply known as Basti No. 5, an elephant had killed a man ten days ago. Elephants had raided the family’s kitchen garden on two consecutive nights, and completely destroyed the crop of lenthil and tapioca. On the third night, when the family heard the unmistakable sounds of an elephant in their backyard, they fled their rickety shack. Unfortunately, the lone elephant was not in the backyard as they had thought but stood on the path blocking their exit. The terrorized family fled stumbling and whimpering into the night away from the gigantic dark hulk. While the mother and three children escaped, the elephant grabbed the father and hurled him into a hedge. They could not approach to see if he needed medical help for fear of their own lives as the elephant didn’t budge from the spot until dawn. By then it was too late. As the widow stood mute through our conversation with her neighbours, the awareness of her predicament hit me squarely in the solar plexus. A panchayat elder said that she would get Rs. 50,000 ex-gratia payment from the Forest Department whereas the official notification declares that she should be given Rs. 100,000. With three children to support, her insurance against starvation in shambles and her job at the tea garden insecure, the burden of providing for her family rested solely on her fragile malnourished shoulders.

Why do elephants leave their forest refuge and trouble their human neighbours? Are poor villagers the only affected party in this battle of wits and might? With support from United States Fish and Wildlife Services’ Asian Elephant Fund and Asian Nature Conservation Foundation, I sought the answers to these questions on the front lines of human-elephant conflict and among 130 scientific publications, articles, books and reports from Africa and Asia. As in any story there are two sides. While the human victims are the vocal, dramatic face of this conflict, the toll on elephants is invisible but just as catastrophic.

According to Project Elephant, the Ministry of Environment and Forests’ elephant-affairs body, only 22% of elephant territory in India is given the highest degree of protection as a National Park or Wildlife Sanctuary; the rest falls under an assortment of lax regimes such as reserve, revenue and private forests. In other words, the bulk of elephant territory lies in areas that are exploited and degraded by humans. Imagine that you have only the bedroom to yourself and the rest of your house is open to anyone to come and take what they like or even demolish with no thought of your well-being. That is precisely what is happening wherever there is high conflict in elephant country.

The few isolated studies that quantify the loss of elephant-used forests indicate that they are being destroyed literally right beneath the pachyderms’ feet. In one extreme case, Assam lost 65% of choice elephant habitat since 1972, with Sonitpur District alone losing about 30% of its lowland forests in 10 recent years. Elephant forests are also sliced and severed by highways, dam projects and railroads. Elephants live to be 50 years old so what do they do when they lose their homes? They do not just go away to other forested areas, instead they stick it out and try to adjust. What to eat in which area at what time of the year is learnt by rote from the time an elephant is a mere calf following in its mother’s and aunts’ footsteps. Their destiny is intrinsically coupled to their habitat. That is why despite the risk to their lives, they insist on crossing highways and railway tracks and even swim across reservoirs to use their home range. Degraded forests do not move us emotionally nor do they tell the story of this tragedy in the making.

A recent encroachment at Nameri, Assam

In the tea gardens of Sonitpur, a herd of six elephants has virtually no forests within what it calls home. This herd is not a typical family group that retires shyly by day, for there is nowhere to hide, to get away from the constant heckling and harassment. They are now fighting for their very survival with their backs pressed together and are as aggressive as bulls. It is said that other herds, that used to migrate north to Arunachal Pradesh’s Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary for the summer only, are now spending autumn and sometimes even winter as high as 3300 metres. There is nothing in the foothills of Assam to come back for. In a bid to gain political mileage, Bodo tribals were encouraged to fell and settle in the reserve forests of Sonai-Rupai, Charduar, Balipara, Nowduar, Biswanath and Behali and now both the elephants and people of the area are paying the price.

In other states such as Jharkhand and Orissa, mining and forest fires leave behind a scorched earth incapable of supporting elephants. In the northeast, the pressure of an increasing human population has shortened the jhum cycle to such a degree that there is not enough fallow time for secondary browse to grow. This was the mainstay of the elephant populations of these states in decades past. Across elephant habitats, widespread grazing by domestic cattle encourages inedible weeds to proliferate, suppresses the growth of grass and fodder plants, and exposes the soil. Firewood and bamboo collection puts humans in direct competition with elephants. These are not dramatic events but collectively it is nothing short of plundering the elephants’ food supply. When the inflation rate spiked recently and the cost of food escalated to unheard of heights, sociologists predicted food riots. If that is expected behaviour of civilized humans, is it any wonder that elephants are turning to crops and raiding food stores to survive?

The Rengali canal cutting across elephant habitat, Orissa

Elephants spend summer in one part of the forest and go to another for the winter. They are faithful to their home range whose extent is determined by the quality of the forest and where forage and water are located. A herd’s home range may be a tiny 100 km2 in Sri Lanka, 650 km2 in Mudumalai in Tamil Nadu or 3700 km2 in north Bengal. Whatever the extent of the range, elephants need access to all of it to survive. If parts of their home are blocked by human settlements, they will use the cover of darkness to walk through crops, and villages. Forsaking that inaccessible part of their home is usually not an option and conflict becomes routine along these passageways.

Despite adjusting, when making a living in their home range is no longer possible, elephants expand their range by seeking new pastures. For example, some elephants from Dandeli Wildlife Sanctuary in Karnataka have been visiting the neighbouring states of Maharashtra and Goa since 2002, reportedly because of the Kali hydroelectric project. Humans are no different; when we can’t eke out a living in villages, we migrate to the cities or even other countries in search of work. Such disturbances in elephant habitat disperse the resident herds, creating conflict in their wake. Wherever there is high intensity conflict with elephants, habitat loss is the central theme. Much like Alauddin’s genie, once the elephants are out of the forests, it is almost impossible to put them back inside. That is why we would do well to remember that it is easier to protect their habitat than to create it.

However, habitat loss is not the only reason for conflict. All along the human-elephant interface conflict inevitably rumbles at low intensity. An average adult elephant spends about 18 hours a day in the forest finding about 250 kg of food, a combination of grasses, bulbs, aquatic plants, leaves, bamboo, roots, bark, dry twigs, and fruits. Just beyond the periphery of the forests, humans grow crops that have been selectively bred for greater nutrition, and lesser toxins. Besides where there is no surface water, we plumb the depths with bore wells to cultivate sweet juicy sugarcane and bananas even when all else is dry in the forest. It would take an extraordinarily self-disciplined elephant to turn its trunk up at these treats growing right on the doorstep. Instead of wandering all day long searching for fodder in a forest, here is an opportunity to spend just a few hours a night gorging on so much food concentrated in one place. Is it any wonder that some elephants venture into crops and leave behind fibrous steamy dung balls? Yet research shows that amazingly there are indeed some elephants with ample opportunity to raid crops, which do not give in to temptation and strictly maintain their diet of wild forage. We do not yet know why this is so and studying such elephants may help us understand conflict better.

As if ransacking the elephants’ home isn’t enough, humans kill bull elephants for their tusks. Herds don’t escape the wrath of farmers either. Each region has its preferred choice arsenal to kill and maim elephants – electrocution and mouth bombs in the south, poisoning with pesticides, homemade napalm, poison arrows and gunshots in the north. Stressed elephants may avoid those areas of their home range where they perceive danger and may congregate to find safety in numbers. The habitat that could sustain a smaller herd of elephants may take a beating from such large herds. Eventually the forest becomes so degraded that it cannot sustain the same animals any longer. This drives these elephants to the closest available food: crops. And the vicious cycle of violence continues.

The remains of an elephant visit

Calves learn from their mothers and aunts what to eat, where to find water, which route to take. If crops are on the menu those calves will grow up to consider that as their birthright, a cultural trait. We share the same predilection for “home food”, variously called “comfort food”; there is no other explanation for the Tamilian esteem for curd rice! Young dispersing bulls, whose family has not had a history of raiding crops, may learn the behaviour from other bulls. This may explain why some elephants eat crops while others in the same area don’t.

It is essential to understand that elephants are social animals, intelligent, self-aware and capable of emotions just like humans. Their reactions to various pressures and stresses may vary according to their temperament, experience and learning. In other words, all elephants do not react alike to the same demands, though the general pattern of adjustment and reaction to human behaviour described here holds true.

It is commonly suggested that conflict is a result of growing elephant numbers. But in Assam, although the elephant population is decreasing, the conflict graph doesn’t show a corresponding downward trend. The Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve has one of the largest elephant populations and yet conflict is generally considered to be low. There is no evidence to tie elephant numbers to conflict but there is plenty to show that high and growing human numbers have an impact on conflict intensity. And this is the bottom line: in the overwhelming majority of cases the cause of conflict is human-driven and it is critical for us to recognize and acknowledge this if we are to find equilibrium in our relationship with elephants.