On Thursday, three separate people stopped me to express horror that a young pregnant elephant in Kerala had eaten a fruit (a coconut) with firecrackers inside, that the explosion had irreparably destroyed her jaw, and that she had died a miserable death nursing her wounds in a river. Our building’s house cleaner told me the news made her cry. The watchman asked me how someone could be so horrible to an elephant. I told him that authorities thought the explosive fruit might have been left for a wild boar, not an elephant. He looked at me confused. “Isn’t that still wrong?” When I nodded, his exasperation returned. “It’s still wrong!”

The national distress at the elephant’s terrible death demonstrates how wildlife conservation is possible in a country of over a billion people. Most experts agree that India has the world’s largest population of wild Asian elephants (about 27,000) not just because of strong wildlife laws, but because Indians are generally more tolerant (even affectionate) towards animals. Take Chinna Thambi, a wild elephant who regularly searched for food in neighborhoods outside of Coimbatore. As authorities considered taking Chinna Thambi into captivity, protestors, including from areas frequented by the elephant, gathered to preserve the animal’s freedom—a scene difficult to imagine in most countries. Even for species less revered than elephants, Indians have shown a proclivity for co-existence—for example, wolves can survive in Indian landscapes with human population densities fifteen times greater than those where wolves can survive in the US. While tolerance is difficult to measure, the overall evidence suggests that India’s substantial populations of charismatic wildlife endure partly because many Indians recognize the legitimacy of other species’ right to survive.  

But the exploding coconut demonstrates that this culture of above-average tolerance is not enough. While placing the fruit-bomb was a morally bankrupt act, the sentiments motivating the culprit might be more understandable. Elephants, wild boars, nilgai, and a variety of other crop-raiding species can make a farmer’s life miserable, leaving millions of poor households with a fraction of their yield. Living with elephants is particularly difficult: these giants can easily kill a person. Most elephants are disinclined to cause such harm, and most human deaths from elephants seem to be accidents—but as elephants lose more habitat to infrastructure, industry, and agriculture, these tragic deaths appear to be increasing. Last year, a report to Parliament stated 494 people had been killed by elephants, a nearly 25% increase from the 2010 estimate. Fear of elephants can even prevent parents from letting their children walk home alone from school. Such frustrations from living alongside wildlife can lead to poison-laced bananas, lethal electric fences, or exploding fruit. Killing wildlife is generally illegal for good reasons. Still, the millions of agriculturalists whose livelihoods are stifled by crop-raiding species deserve solutions, too.

How can we make a better life both for India’s elephants and their human neighbours? India’s culture of tolerance must be supplemented by innovative, evidence-driven, socially just institutions that govern the human-wildlife interface. For this, Indian government and civil society need relevant and timely data. First, we need to better understand core ecological variables. How many elephants are there, and how are they distributed? Little data from the elephant census conducted three years ago has been made available, making planning impossible. Do the forests that elephants live in have enough palatable vegetation, or has it been replaced by invasive weeds and inedible plantation trees like teak? In northeast India, we don’t even know all the places elephants go, inhibiting protection of their habitat and lives. Such vital data could empower conservationists to pursue the forest regeneration, grassland restoration, and corridor protection necessary to support large populations of elephants.

Second, we need data on human-elephant conflict itself. Currently, data on crop-raiding by elephants, elephant deaths, and human deaths due to conflict are buried in paper files scattered across the country, preventing timely analyses.  If state governments develop electronic databases on human-elephant conflict, government and civil society can target interventions to places where elephants are troubling communities. We can strategically choose where to help farmers replace lethal electric fences with effective non-lethal barriers, deploy awareness programs to minimize accidental encounters, and strengthen administration of fair compensation programs.

The building of such evidence-driven institutions to protect elephants requires funding. While NGOs could use help from the private sector, government must also step up. The National Tiger Conservation Authority receives approximately Rs.350 crores a year; Project Elephant receives less than 10% of that.  

Admittedly, science wouldn’t fully eliminate the cruelty suffered by the Palakkad elephant. While statistics can strengthen anti-poaching programs, some efforts to kill crop-raiding wildlife will continue. So we should also consider further disincentivizing cruelty towards animals. Currently, wildlife laws guiding sentencing for illegal hunting do not consider whether the animal suffered a slow and painful death. India’s conservation laws are geared to protect species, not prevent animal cruelty, and the episode in Palakkad demonstrates the shortcomings of this approach. The deep pain so many of us felt for the victimized elephant was not just because Asian elephants are a rare species. Our empathy emanated from our recognition that the physical and emotional pain the elephant experienced was not unlike our own pain. Had she picked a different fruit, the joys that elephant might have experienced raising her calf might not have been that different from our own joys. The best neuroscience tells us that, for all our physical and cognitive differences, evolution has endowed modern mammals with similar emotional systems. Cruelty towards an elephant or a wild boar might not be as bad as cruelty towards a human—but it’s pretty close.

So accepting that people will continue to kill wild animals, perhaps our laws should regard cruel acts as that seen in Palakkad more harshly than, say, defending crops with a gun when there is no alternative. Rural Indians, especially the poor, shouldn’t be excessively penalized for trying to protect their livelihood from wildlife. We have to adequately punish human cruelty without unduly punishing human desperation. 

This article was first published in The Indian Express. 


WWF-India has been working towards restoring and securing connectivity in elephant habitat landscapes with the participation of the forest departments in these regions, local NGOs and communities.

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