Resolving conflict

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Pic credit: Kaushik Bajibab

In an attempt to reduce human-elephant conflicts, there have been various operations to capture and translocate them. However, these efforts can have adverse effects on the well-being of elephants.

On July 6, 2016, a wild elephant in West Bengal was shot dead when things went out of hand before an attempt at capture. On June 21, 2016, a wild tusker  captured by the Forest Department died two days after it was translocated and held captive in the Anamalai Tiger Reserve, Tamil Nadu.

The elephant died from injuries in the head leading to haemorrhage and internal bleeding. Demands to capture wild elephants from areas like Madikeri and Hassan have tripled over the years. Now, Karnataka wants to sterilise its female captive elephants and West Bengal wants to capture 18 wild elephants. But is capture a sound decision? Has it proved to be successful in the past? Are people living on the fringes of forests now at peace after the removal of elephants?

What’s going wrong?

In the mid-1980s, when human-elephant interactions increased, 13 elephants were removed from Hassan. Between 1994 and 2014, over 40 elephants were captured in Karnataka alone. A few were translocated to other forests and many held captive. Has it worked? Let’s start with Operation Drona. The first attempt to capture elephants in Hassan was made in February 2007 (40 human lives were lost to elephant attacks in 2006-2007).

In 2013, the Karnataka High Court gave clearance to capture 25 ‘problem’ elephants from the district. So far, 17 have been removed to permanent captivity, three translocated and two released within the landscape after collaring. But are villagers in Hassan celebrating? “Locals suspect that the Forest Department has released many elephants back in the area. We have spotted elephants by the river. People still live in fear,” says the owner of a resort in Sakleshpur. Agreeing, Dr Ananda Kumar, wildlife scientist with Nature Conservation Fund (NCF) says, “The Hassan landscape still witnesses similar problems, evident from our study in that landscape since 2015.”

Capture, in some cases, is the only solution. Like the Operation Malai, which was recommended by scientists after studying the said problem group over a period of time. Habitual crop raid behaviour was worsened by encroachment on migration routes after the construction of National Highway 46 in 2002. With only one adult male, threat of inbreeding could not be ruled out. But things didn’t go as planned. The six wild elephants captured from Jawadhu Hills in 2013 were separated and held captive in kraals in Mudumalai and Anamalai Tiger Reserves with no proper facilities and were forced to live in a highly stressful environment.

Dr Varun Goswami, a senior wildlife consultant with the Wildlife Conservation Society, India asserts, “I am not in favour of capturing wild elephants, except when all else has failed and we really have no other option left. In certain locations, particularly in fragmented landscapes, some elephants (but not all) may indeed have acquired a habitual tendency to raid crops, leading to regular and repetitive human–elephant conflicts. But even in such circumstances, the capture of elephants may be justified firstly, if the elephant population is isolated and unviable and secondly, the habitat is degraded to an extent where the prevention of crop-raiding will cause the elephants to starve.”

In February 2014, three wild elephants were captured in Sindhudurg district in Maharashtra. Two of the elephants died in the ensuing days – negligence and lack of training and facilities were the prime causes. “In captive elephant management, our country is ill-equipped — right from lack of trained professionals to space and funds. Lack of trained mahouts and work-related stress has led to increased conflict in captivity in recent years,” opines Dr Ananda. According to a recent study that covered captive elephant population in Kerala, the NCF team found that in a period of 18 months, 130 conflict incidents led to 18 human fatalities and extensive property damages. The second biggest risk is picking up the wrong elephant.

Another issue plaguing the Forest Department is procurement of etorphine, which is the most advised drug for sedating elephants. Being a Schedule H drug, approval from Narcotics cell of the Police Department is needed. “This leaves the vets with xylazine hydrochloride (a muscle relaxant) and ketamine (a nerve relaxant). Xylazine is the one commonly used. Care needs to be taken in deciding the dose and ensuring that the animal is cooled at regular intervals,” advices Ananda.

Crowd control is also one of the major factors affecting operations. Often, the wild animal is spotted surrounded by kumkis (the Tamil name for captive, trained elephants) and hordes of people. Loud noise and human induced disturbances delay the process of drug acting upon the animal. Capturing and captivity facilities involve huge costs. That’s crores of rupees from the paltry and thrifty budget set aside by the Central government for conservation of wildlife and forests. Lastly, is it even ethical to capture wild elephants to make them kumkis? Dr Ananda says that it is really not advisable. “An animal brought to the camp at a very young age requires care and affection to recover from the trauma.” Not all animals become kumkis, as the animal’s inherent dominance/subordinate equations play a role in defining the same.

Let’s understand how elephants endure under such circumstances and the impact of a removal on its society. “It could lead to disruption of social network while also causing trauma to other individuals in that society. From a biological perspective, removal of an elephant for permanent captivity is similar to poaching,” elucidates Dr Ananda. There is scientific evidence all around. Dr Kathleen Gobush in her 2008 study explains how removal even results in increased stress hormone levels and cessation of reproductive cycles. Studies have also proved that selective removal approach affects natural populations. Since males are frequently targeted, it impacts the male and female sex ratios in the wild.

Inadequate approach

Each range has its own unique pattern and story. Though elephant-human interactions have increased, reasons contributing vary based on the landscape, number of people, their attitude and approaches, land use patterns, pressures associated with landscapes and elephant populations and so on. “We believe that solutions do not lie with experts but they lie in places and with people who are interacting with elephants on a daily basis. What we need is to take our understanding of science to people and make them part of solutions which will have sustainable positive effects,” says Dr Ananda.

When causes of conflict vary across landscapes, why do we seek the one solution fits all approach? Why not push for co-existence? There is a lot we humans can learn from this magnificent animal. Naturalist and writer, Peter Matthiessen once said, “There is mystery behind that masked grey visage, and ancient life force, delicate and mighty, awesome and enchanted.” But, are we listening?

The article was published in the Deccan Herald 

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