The Human Elephant (Wildlife) Relationship



Nature conservation has traditionally relied on the creation of large human-free ‘protected’ (from people) areas – PAs. This has of course been relatively successful, but has its own set of problems. The first is that this model originated in North America – a continent that had vast human free areas because the Native Americans were decimated by the arriving settlers, leaving the land largely de-populated. In a crowded country like India, there are no such human free areas. Our ‘PA Network’ (though a very spread out ‘PA Archipelago’ is perhaps a better description) covers about 5% of the landmass, and has hundreds of thousands of people living in them. Many of them are being relocated, but even if they all are moved out, large and dangerous wild animals currently live in at least 30% of the country’s area – sharing space with people in another 25% of the country.

India also has a rather unique track record in terms of the human-wildlife relationship. As every race ‘developed’ they invariably killed off all the other large mammals that competed with them for space and resources. Wolves in North America and Europe are well known examples – even Japan killed off all its wolves around 1900. India has arguably had the technology to wipe out most animals for centuries, but more that half of the world tigers and two-thirds of the worlds Asian Elephants continue to live alongside people, themselves packed in at about 450 in every square kilometre.

Should the Indian conservation ethos build on this long religious and cultural ‘tolerance’ to wildlife or should we completely ignore it and copy everyone else in the world?

In the Gudalur region – highly dominated by people – we are looking for ways in which people and elephants can share space. This is more easily said than done – ‘human-elephant conflict’ is all over the news every day, with over 30 people being killed in this area alone over the last 5 years. There is no ‘coexistence’ blue print/formula or solution, so most of our work at this stage is ‘research’ – to better understand how elephants (and other animals) and people are living together in a place like the Gudalur Forest Division, and try to make sure they can continue to coexist in the years to come. In more concrete terms, some of the activities we are working on are:

  • Talking/interviewing people across the region to understand conflict and tolerance to animals; how they managed to live along side each other in the past and to see if any of this can be relevant in a more ‘modern’ context.
  • Helping local villages and large estates understand how elephants move around/in their lands and make ‘human-elephant coexistence plans’, possibly by cordoning off some areas while also allowing elephants to move through others.
  • Setting up camera traps to let local people see (and hopefully get excited by) animals on their lands, be more tolerant on them. We’ve got four camera traps, and they are being used in various estates at the moment.
  • Working with local panchayats, forest and revenue departments to coordinate efforts on issues of human-wildlife interactions.
  • Making lots of maps – where people get injured or killed, where elephants come regularly, how they move through the landscape, where the concentration of houses are etc. This is being used to look for broad scale patterns/trends to see if anything can be done at that district level.
  • Photographing and identifying individual elephants to understand how different individuals behave.
  • Setting up an SMS based early warning system to alert local villages when elephants approach the village.

We are not sure what the exact outcome of this work is and where it is heading, but hope to keep learning things along the way – updates on our blog!

(Last updated May 2014)