The country is home to the world’s largest population of Asian elephants, an endangered species, with declining populations in its home range of 13 countries.
Their forest habitats are being eroded by agriculture and infrastructure, as India’s growing population of nearly 1.4 billion people expands further into the wilderness.
“One of the biggest challenges in India is the fact that we have less than 5% of the land set aside for wildlife, and there are millions of people living next to or inside our protected areas,” explains Krithi Karanth, chief conservation scientist. and Executive Director of the Center for Wildlife Studies, headquartered in Bangalore, southern India.
The country has more than 100 national parks and around 30 elephant reserves, but many of the 30,000 Indian elephants live outside these protected areas and have less and less habitat to roam in search of food. This leads them to increased contact with humans.
Standing about three meters tall and weighing up to 5,000 kilograms, an elephant eats about 150 kg of food per day – mostly grass, leaves and bark. But more nutritious crops like sugar cane, rice, and bananas can be particularly appealing.
“A lot of elephant encounters happen by chance,” says Karanth, who was recently named a “Wild Innovator” by the nonprofit Wild Elements Foundation, as part of a new program to support environmental projects. led by women from all over the world.
The bison brought back after 10,000 years
Farmers trying to protect their crops can be accidentally killed by elephants when they try to hunt them, she says.
“We have also documented many deaths where people come home at night and just run into elephants.”
India accounts for 70 to 80% of all recorded human deaths from elephants in Asia, according to Sandeep Kumar Tiwari of the Wildlife Trust of India and the IUCN SSC Asian Elephant Specialist Group.
Mr. Tiwari says about 500,000 families are affected by conflict with elephants each year across the country, mostly by animals damaging their crops.
Between 80 and 100 elephants are killed each year by human activities, he adds, some by reprisals such as poisoning or electrocution, others by being run over by trains.
Finding ways for humans and elephants to coexist peacefully will require a concerted effort by government, environmentalists and the public to come together to address this problem both in the short and long term, Tiwari said. .
Find effective solutions
Farmers sometimes use light and noise to scare elephants away, but these tactics can become less effective as the animals get used to them.
Planting crops that elephants don’t like to eat, such as chili peppers, lemons, and ginger, digging trenches, and installing alarm systems to warn people of nearby elephants can all help keep animals away from farmland. . Community groups can also be formed to guide elephants into the forest and away from crops.
Another approach is to help people in rural communities cope with the impact elephants can have on their daily lives. The Indian government is offering compensation to families who have suffered losses caused by wildlife, but receiving payment can be a long and bureaucratic process, Ms. Karanth said.
She has developed a program to help rural communities access compensation. They can call a toll-free number and their staff will assess the damage and help them submit the documents necessary to make a claim. She says the Wild Seve program has helped families submit nearly 18,000 claims and receive nearly $ 800,000 in compensation over the past five and a half years.
In the long term, one of the most effective ways to reduce conflict will be to restore and protect forest areas and ancient migration âcorridorsâ that elephants pass through, Tiwari said.
These strips of forest connect elephant’s natural habitats, and preserving them means animals have less reason to wander on farmland.
Mr. Tiwari’s organization, the Wildlife Trust of India, along with the Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Climate Change, and other partners, has identified 101 of these corridors and is working with state and national governments. to protect and secure them.
Designing infrastructure such as roads with underpasses for wildlife can also help maintain connectivity for these corridors.
In a country where elephants are considered a sacred animal – the embodiment of the god Ganesh – by the predominantly Hindu population, Mr Tiwari and Ms Karanth say tolerance for elephants encroaching on farmland is generally high. . Ms Karanth cautions against complacency but is optimistic that the situation will improve.
âThere is a deep religious and cultural affinity for this animal,â Ms. Karanth said. “I hope people will do more for elephants because of this affinity.”