Incidences of elephants straying into towns and cities in Karnataka are becoming frequent. Tumkur set the precedence over a decade ago and towns both near and far from elephant habitats are joining this list. Recently, Mysore joined the group making news beyond the national boundaries. Fortunately, the losses both in terms of human life and property have been minimal (with due respect to the person killed by the elephant) in this instance.
We now have adequate empirical experience of such incidences. But have we put these understandings to practice to reduce occurrences of such situations or efficiently handle such conditions?
Approaches to reduce conflict
We need to take extreme care when any large wildlife, that can cause serious injuries or loss of life, strays into human habitations. Two of the most important issues that need attention in such situations are crowd control and assessing pragmatic solutions. We are yet to come up with answers for the former as handling mob is a colossal task. Only the police have the capability to manage mob and have to actively participate in these situations. Clamping section 144 to manage the rabble and publicising the implementation of the rule makes a big difference.
Mobile phones with cameras have become a nuisance. Everyone wants to store a piece of the history in their memory cards not realising that their actions are severely complicating the problem.
When elephants stray out of forests, initially for crop raiding, they are constantly chased around before they lose direction and keep heading in the wrong path. The pragmatic approach would be to ensure that the elephants are headed back in the right course. For this to materialise, meticulous logistics preparation is a necessity. Recently I was witness to an incident where two elephants were to be driven back towards forests. Our requests that prior announcement through public address system should be made in villages to ensure that people would stay indoors went in vain. An unwary farmer who continued to be on the streets lost his life due to the apathy of a couple of decision makers.
Perhaps it is essential to bring out rules in the line of the recently released human-leopard conflict guidelines. This would set out protocols that need to be followed when elephants stray into human habitations. These guidelines are best developed with the help of those who have hands-on experience in handling such situations. Veterinarians, officials and lower staff of the forest department, police and conservationists can all contribute to this exercise. However as with any other rules or guidelines, implementation is the key.
Countless number of times it has been said in various forums that our elephant habitats are being fragmented and degraded beyond tolerable limits. Forests in the Western Ghats have become soft targets for all our civil engineering projects and exploitative activities. Highways, railway lines, power projects, mining all contribute to reduction of elephant habitats leading to higher conflict. However this hasn’t deterred our development planners to continue with their sole goal of meeting financial targets.
In India, physical barriers such as elephant proof trenches and electric fences have long been used as a tool to reduce elephants moving out of their habitats. Effective maintenance of these physical barriers can largely help reduce these incidences. Forest department has taken this matter seriously. However the responsibility also lies with people not to dislodge these barricades.
Role of media
In the media world, there is intense competition to get the best footage and to be the first to break the news. To achieve this, media men crowd around the already traumatised animals confusing them further. What have these few individuals who do not act responsibly achieved out of all the human-wildlife conflict instances where they have got their best footages? Mere higher Television Rating Points (TRPs)? Have they put themselves in the shoes of the families who saw their father, husband or son killed that was telecast live? It must be harrowing for the family and friends of the victim watching the incidence on the television. I wish the media and decision makers within the media houses became conscious of their social responsibilities. Whatever little support and love people hold for wildlife can potentially be reduced through telecasting of such gory images and footages. Animals do not kill anyone with a purpose; it is a mere co-incidence.
Even basic understanding of wildlife is missing within the media. Most media had reported that the two elephants that roamed the streets of Mysore were a mother and calf duo. However it turned out to be a makhna (tuskless male) and a juvenile male.
Some people use these opportunities to proclaim that fodder and water need to be created in elephant habitats to prevent the pachyderms straying out of forests. Studies make it clear that conflict is high during post monsoon and negligibly low or almost non-existent during summers. Hence scientific understanding of conflict is very much essential to draw up plans.
Human-elephant conflict is inevitable until we share this planet with these mega-herbivores. However conflict needs to be brought down to tolerable limits through pragmatic, implementable approaches.
An edited version of this article was published in Deccan Herald on 17-06-2011