ART OF LIVING with the ELEPHANTS By Prachi Mehta

Updated: Dec 3, 2018

Manju was smiling watching his mother Shashikala, 53, narrate the following incident with considerable excitement. “The sound of the song woke us both. It was 1 am. I thought my mobile was ringing but it was silent and yet the song was playing Just then Manju looked out of the window and yelled out 'banni, banni, Aane hegidra ( Come soon, elephant has come)'. I peeped out and saw a huge tusker standing near that banana plant. It stood there for a minute and then suddenly turned its back and walked away”. She added laughingly “Maybe it did not like this song. It was the first time we could see the elephant so clearly in our farm". There was a tinge of amusement in her voice. After this incident, Manju has installed 2 more alarm bells around his farm in Karkinkoppa village to protect his banana plants from elephants.


This incident may not sound extraordinary but since I know the history behind this, it will remain special to me. In 2010 when we began our work on the use of simple, low cost methods for reducing crop damage by elephants, we met with a lot of resistance from the farmers. They advised us on what we ought to be doing to reduce crop loss. Most of them wanted us to remove the elephants from the forests, many demanded funds for solar fence and elephant proof trench, others wanted us to guard their crops every night and a few suggested that we should help them to shift outside the forests. In the meetings, the farmers would turn up in large numbers to register their grievances against the elephants, the Forest Department field staff, fellow farmers, all other wildlife and their in-laws. Amidst this setting, we began our work on demonstrating the use of low-cost crop protection methods. Some farmers became interested but most others were curious onlookers. Manju was one of the interested farmers.

There are about 60 elephants in Dandeli Anshi Tiger Reserve in North Kanara District of Karnataka state. Every year between July to January, elephants visit the paddy and sugarcane fields of Yellapur and Haliyal divisions damaging about 300 crop fields. During the cropping season, there is palpable tension in the air as elephants are out, crops are raided, farmers are suffering and the Forest Department is under slack for not managing the situation. The media is full of reports of farmer’s woes, misbehaviour of elephants and inefficiency of the Forest Department.


Once I heard an angry farmer yelling at the hapless Forest Guard “Last night the elephants came to my field and damaged my crops! What were you doing? Where were you?” This statement explained many things to me in an instant. In India, the responsibility of managing the elephants inside or outside the forests sits squarely on the shoulders of the Forest Department. During the cropping season, the field staff receives phone calls from the farmers throughout the night asking them to chase away the elephants from their fields.


The task becomes challenging when there are thousands of crops fields abutting the forests growing paddy, sugarcane, banana, coconut, maize, finger millet and other crops that elephant find hard to resist and less than 100 field staff to drive them away. By the time the field staff reaches the venue, substantial crop loss has taken place. Forest Department offers compensation for the loss but often that is not enough to redress the damages. Forest Department installs solar fences and makes elephant proof trenches to prevent elephant entry in the fields but these measures offer short term respite as elephants often breach them. Also the fences and trenches become defunct in 1 or 2 years due to lack of maintenance.


From 2004 to 2009, while working on human-elephant conflict in Kodagu District in Karnatana and Kolhapur-Sindhudurg districts in Maharashtra, we realised that farmers perceive elephants as an enemy only when they suffer economic losses. At other times they do not object to the presence of elephants in their landscape. Unless the reasons for their grouse are addressed, it is difficult to conserve the elephants in human-dominated landscape.


In 2010 we initiated a pilot project (with the support of CEPF-ATREE’s Western Ghats Program) to implement the concept of community-based management of elephant conflict (CBCM) wherein the farmers are trained in protecting their own crops using simple, low-cost methods. Successful implementation of such a project requires long-term presence in the area for hand holding and motivating the farmers to adopt these methods. From 2011 onward this work has been continuously supported by the Asian Elephant Conservation Fund of the US Fish and Wildlife Service due to which we are able to implement the CBCM approach on a larger scale and motivate more than 300 farmers to participate in the project activities.


Our project focused on reviving the practice of self guarding by farmers using many old and a few new methods. The tradition of crop guarding is not new to the farmers but for several reasons it is not being followed commonly as it used to be earlier.


There is considerable fear about elephants, which is partly justified. Guarding the fields at night after a hard day’s work is easier said than done. To address this issue we are encouraging the farmers to make a spacious and comfortable machan on a tall tree in their field so at least 2 people can stay up on the machan. Elephants usually come to raid the fields when it is dark so we suggested use of trip alarm bell. The trip alarm is a simple device wherein the boundary of the crop field is secured with a nylon rope and a door bell. When the elephant tries to enter the field, the rope gets pulled triggering the loud music from the bell. The sound of the bell is meant to give an early warning to the farmers about presence of elephant so they can take timely action to chase them out. The trip alarm is very useful in early detection of elephants and over 300 farmers have installed trip alarms in their fields and are able to detect elephants on arrival. “Now the elephants have to ring the bell to come to our farms” is a joke shared by farmers about the trip alarm.


Another effective method is the use of chilly-based deterrents. Green chilly paste with tobacco powder is used to make chilly rope and chilly curtain, and hung around the harvested rice stack. The strong pungent smell of this paste masks the smell of ripe paddy and also acts as an irritant for the elephants. Burning chudi or grass bundle laced with chilly is another useful method. Dry grass along with red chilly pods, tobacco, coconut shell is bundled to make a 9 feet long grass bundle which is kept near the boundary and allowed to burn slowly generating thick smoke. ”We have heard elephants sneezing and coughing when they inhaled the smoke. Nowadays they have stopped coming this way” says Soma Siddi from Bilki village. Mr. Guruprasad, the forester of Kirwatti Range says that elephants have changed their path ever since they used the chilly smoke around the main entry point in his area.


In Africa the sound of honey bees (Apis mellifera) is used to deter the elephants. We experimented with the sound on elephants feeding on crops and the results were dramatic. The elephants fled within minutes of hearing the buzzing of bees and the farmers could not stop laughing on seeing this sight. Bee sound is easy to use to drive away the elephants; but if all farmers start using it the elephants will soon learn that it is an empty threat. We are therefore encouraging the farmers to make bee-hive fences with wood logs and clay pots. Suitable logs are smeared with wax and kept near crop fields for natural colonization by bees. A few farmers were successful in colonization of the logs and pots by bees. They reported that on smelling the wax, the elephants avoided that path. However, colonized logs are a major attraction for sloth bears (and even neighbouring farmers) so they need to be protected from unwarranted attention. This bee-hive fence has the potential to deter elephants and earn extra income by production of honey. This method has a long-term potential to reduce the crop loss by elephants.


The methods mentioned above are made from locally available material, are easy to use and costs between Rs 50 to 300. Our research biologist interviewed 408 farmers in the project area. Of these 76% farmers are practicing crop guarding and their crop loss is lower than those who are not guarding their own crops.


Elephant experts find such solutions too simplistic. It is true that the methods are simple. They are based on the fact that presence of people in the crop field is a major psychological deterrent for elephants. Since farmers are protecting their own crops, they are able to take timely actions to reduce crop loss. Our field biologist spent several nights with the farmers during the crop raiding season to encouraging them to drive away elephants using these methods. He sums up his advice to the farmers in simple words “Instead of waiting for help to arrive, it is better to do something on your own and keep the elephants out”.


Another issue of concern is human deaths that take place due to accidental encounters with elephants while working in the forests, or walking to school or crossing the village road. Elephants don’t like surprises. In self-defence they attack the intruder and sadly the person dies. Subsequently elephants are declared as rogues and they are either captured by the Forest Department or persecuted by the people. Either way, the elephants die too. To avoid such unfortunate incidents, it is advisable not to work alone or venture out during the night in elephant country. Many casualities have been attributed to drunken state of people when they chance upon elephants in deep forests. With vigilance and awareness among local people, it is possible to avoid such incidents and save human lives.


Elephants are not faring any better. In high conflict area, they are shot and electrocuted by the farmers. They are captured from the forests and many die during capture operations due to bizarre reasons: overdose of tranquilizers, injuries during capture and lack of veterinary care. Those who survive are sent to elephant camps where their life is often quite miserable. In addition to this they are run over by speeding trains and are poached for tusks and meat.


People are suffering and so are the elephants and there is no single solution to resolve this conflict. In my understanding, parallel efforts are need at various levels to address this issue. Maintaining the integrity of elephant habitat, prevention of encroachment and bamboo removal, control on degradation of forests, monitoring the elephant population, induction of self-guarding practices among farmers, an awareness on code of conduct for people in elephant areas, improvement of captive elephant facility and developing a compassionate attitude towards elephants are of equal and immediate importance. Addressing these issues will go a long way in easing the conflict of interest between people and elephants.


A lot of work is being done on human - elephant issues all over the world. Many learning need to be shared and adopted. Among them a major learning is about the art of living with the elephants.

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