Elephant in the room (Quite literally!)
Updated: Apr 29, 2021
Pondicherry university (2018 - 2020)
Elephants entering people’s houses in Thadagam valley to eat rice and cattle fodder is not unheard of. They are seen roaming in villages and fields late at night searching for “easy food”. People of Thadagam valley have known the existence of elephants in the surrounding hills for generations but in the past decade or so (as told by villagers) elephants have frequently started raiding crops.
Elephant snacking inside SACON (Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History), Anaikatti, Tamil Nadu. Photo: Dr. Parthasarathi Mishra
I worked on understanding people’s perception of elephants, their relationship, and the cost of living with them in Thadgam valley in Coimbatore district as part of my dissertation project for my Masters’. I was there in the months of January and early part of February of 2020.Thadagam’s proximity to the city of Coimbatore and rapid urbanization of the city has led to rise of brick kilns in the valley. The operation of these kilns have dried streams, affected agriculture and fragmented migratory paths of elephants resulting in increased conflict.
Our bond with elephants is not new. We share a relationship with elephants that date back to centuries ago. Historical records such as Kautilya Arthashastra documents the presence of elephants in gajavanas and indicate legal protection for elephants by rulers 2000 years ago. It has come to play a role in the culture, history, art, religion and folklore of most Asian countries be it as the elephant-headed diety “Ganesha” or as motifs in stone in Sri Lanka that date back to 4th century. The significance of elephant in our culture has allowed the coexistence of two species for a long time. But changing land-use patterns, urbanization, habitat degradation and fragmentation to meet the growing needs of the population has led to increasing number of negative interactions between people and the mega herbivore.
Many times, these interactions are wrongly termed “conflict” that suggests conscious enmity between the two species when in reality people have lived and tolerated not just elephants but other wildlife in their backyards for a very long time. While negative incidences such as crop raiding, human injury and infrastructure damage do occur, it is just a part of the entire picture. Conflict, coexistence and tolerance are fluid concepts and part of the same continuum. They move across the continuum depending upon the individual’s background, political scenario, economic stability, compensation laws, cultural values etc.
As part of my work I asked people questions that would allow them to express their feelings freely. The point of this study was not to find the objective truth but to understand subjective notions surrounding elephants and the differences between these views.
I interviewed a total of 116 people over a course of 45-50 days. Barring the exception of few all were very kind to me and my colleague Merlin Elizabeth. We were offered tea which was as sweet as the people and snacks wherever we went and a few shop owners even refused to accept payment for their delicious snacks. While conducting the survey I held no bias towards any gender, community, caste etc. Almost equal number of men and women were interviewed for the study. The landscape was primarily an agrarian area but the recent times have seen a change in people’s occupation. The people I interviewed included farmers, brick kiln owners, cattle owners, college students, daily wagers in fields and brick kilns, shop owners, housewives etc. There were many who had multiple sources of income like having a farm and a brick kiln unit.
One of the brick kilns of Thadagam valley.
When I asked people why elephants come to villages, different people from different backgrounds gave varied reasons. While some said they come to eat and drink because there are insufficient resources in the forest, some called crops the “junk food” of elephants which they love more than forest food. Others believed that these elephants were left in the forests by the state of Kerala (Thadagam valley is on the border of Kerala and Tamil Nadu) because they no longer needed them for logging. Some even said that elephants simply liked hanging around with people!
Most scientific literature when talking about interactions between elephants and humans only talk about losses which can be measured such as crop loss, property damage and loss of life. But there are invisible costs or indirect costs of living with elephants as well. People have to guard their farms at night which meant their sleep cycle is being disrupted on everyday basis. One college student I interviewed who traveled back and forth daily, told me, it is difficult to have a “normal college experience” for him. He cannot go out for long trips with his friends as he has to help his father guard their farm. Another issue is the complex process one has to go through to get compensation. For a small scale farmer running around different offices to get compensation means loss of earning days. Many farmers have stopped growing anything on their land in fear of crop raiders and are selling their soil/mud to brick kilns. Such practices can have a detrimental effect on the ecosystem if allowed to continue without check.
Crop damage by elephants
Despite all the complication that come with sharing space with the giant pachyderm I found that 66% of my interviewees showed positive to neutral feelings towards elephants. Many even sympathized saying there isn’t enough resources in the forests so the forest department should provide them with food and water, but inside forests. Some acknowledged that elephants have been living here far before them but strangely it’s only in the last 10-15 years that they are raiding crops.
Elephant dung found in agricultural fields
Another interesting topic that cropped up during my survey was the controversy surrounding the ownership of the elephant. Some opinions suggested that the government should do something about the problem implying that the elephant is theirs. An often heard refrain is “Take the elephants away from here” suggesting that the onus of protecting crops from elephants is the job of the Forest department. This can worsen the situation as villagers will pressurize the local governing bodies and Forest department to “remove” elephants from the area. Translocating elephants is a herculean task and it brings its own set of challenges like the added cost of feeding it in an elephant camp, stress on the individual etc. In some cases the elephant tries to come back to its home range just like Chinna Thambi.
Some regarded the elephant as self-owner who does what it wants whenever it wants. It is an independent entity which cannot be governed or controlled. What it implies is, people do not feel the problem can be resolved and they have to live with it. This can generate negative or neutral feelings depending upon how much damage they face. An uncommon view was that the onus of protecting the elephant is on the local communities. With the help of conservation bodies, farmers can be trained in simple and effective crop protection techniques like trip alarms, chili smoke etc. This way, the FD team will not be over-worked and the farmers can be self-reliant. The perceived ownership of an animal matters because it also influences people’s level of tolerance towards them. If people acknowledge that they live in “elephant forests” and the elephants have an equal right over that land, then the possibility of coexistence also increases. Whereas if the elephants are viewed as government’s “cattle” then the smallest damage can elicit a disproportionately bigger outrage.
Electric fences used to keep elephants away.
Living with elephants can be challenging. While some have adapted to it, some are still resisting. Those with alternate livelihoods find it easier to live with elephants. To quote a young driver “I and the elephant live our own parallel lives”. Barring a few people, most people are getting used to elephants around them even if they are still scared. Some said the fear is also gone now. Watching elephants and discussing them has become a part of their daily routine. An owner of a tea stall said she finds the big animal very interesting and likes looking at them from afar.
The elephant is looked upon as an intelligent animal who does not harm people unless provoked. Some villagers fondly remember Chinna Thambi and Vinayagan and one even asked us if we knew how they are doing and where they are. Such perspectives show tolerance towards the pachyderms but this is only one side of the story. People are still scared of elephants and accidental injuries to humans can fuel negative behavior towards them.
Attitudes and behavior towards elephants are constantly in a flux. Somebody who looks at an elephant curiously might start fearing it due to an unprecedented accident, whereas someone who disliked elephants may tolerate their existence if his/her livelihood is unharmed. All these parameters influence their ability to coexist.
Conservation science needs to arm itself with multidisciplinary approaches to understand the complex web of human-wildlife interactions. The integration of emotions and socio-economic factors in our understanding of human-wildlife interactions can help promote coexistence and build better mitigation strategies especially in countries like India where sharing space with wildlife is not uncommon.
Contributed by Shweta Madgulkar. This work was carried out by Shweta as a part of her MSc thesis from Pondicherry university (2018-2020).