A study in contrasts: demystifying elephant behaviour

Radio-collaring of three male elephants in Wayanad throws light into human-elephant interactions and conflict, and the need for more discriminate prevention and management measures

© D. Boominathan/WWF-India
© K. Karthik/WWF-India
Human-Elephant Conflict (HEC) remains one of the most challenging issues in conservation. Despite having attempted numerous solutions for over a decade, we are no closer to arriving at an effective resolution. Contrary to our expectations, statistics show that HEC is, in fact, increasing despite these efforts. Approximately 400 people are killed in encounters with wild elephants every year, and over a million families suffer the consequences of destroyed crops and agricultural produce as a result of crop raiding by elephants. On the other side of the conflict, we find that elephants are frequently dealt punitively by irate village communities through electrocutions, shootings, poisoning and death by explosives. The deaths arising out of these conflicts have begun to outnumber the deaths caused by poachers. HEC is now the most serious threat to elephant populations.

Given the prevailing circumstances, it is prudent for us to take a step back and examine some of the challenges we have faced in our attempts to tackle this issue. Research is a critical component to the overall understanding of the nature of conflict itself. In an attempt to develop a better understanding of HEC we conducted a study on elephant behaviour in the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary, Kerala, in 2012-13.

The complexities of conflict

This study has unearthed several important lessons that would contribute significantly to our understanding of HEC in this region, and help us formulate an appropriate management strategy. First, it showed that crop raiding behavior is not necessarily common to all elephants. Besides, different individuals have different raiding behaviors, which are heavily influenced by several factors including their age, body condition and other habitat conditions.

Secondly, it was also observed that the habitual raider had lost its fear of humans. Prevention measures that use electric fences and other physical obstructions to keep the raiding elephant away, need not necessarily be foolproof.

In light of these findings it is important to factor in individual elephant behavior while devising and implementing HEC prevention and management strategies.

Towards better management

The three radio-collared elephants have contributed some degree of insight into the crop-raiding behavior of elephants, and have brought to light several critical misconceptions that were influencing our conflict management planning in the region. Differences in the age, body condition and exposure to different factors have been found to have influenced the behavior of the three males. While this study of the three elephants has been invaluable, we have a long way to go before we understand all the factors that need to be taken into account while planning HEC management strategies. What is clear as of now is that, considering all the current prevention and management methods fall short in one way or the other, we need to identify and test alternative strategies which allow the habitual raiders to stay in their existing habitat and yet be deterred from crop raiding. WWF-India is in the process of importing radio-collars for future collaborative studies with the Kerala Forest Department.       

© WWF-India
© P. A. Vinayan/WWF-India
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