What our giant nomads need


Jun 26, 2020

Wildlife expert on the Asiatic elephant, Vivek Menon speaks to Patriot about how the human-animal conflict has not been adequately understood by the people, nor has policymaking adequately addressed the issue

As per a recent census, there are 27,000 wild elephants in India, including those found in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The country’s huge human population often comes into conflict with these animals. Every year more than 100 elephants are killed in such conflicts.

To understand the issue, Patriot speaks to award-winning conservationist Vivek Menon who is the founder, executive director and CEO of Wildlife Trust of India.

With his area of expertise being conservation of the Asiatic elephant, he is also the senior advisor to the International Fund for Animal Welfare. He is the recipient of the 2001 Rufford Award for International Conservative for his work to save Asiatic elephants.

How do you view the outrage that the death of a pregnant elephant in Kerala caused? Did that address the real issue?

The death of an elephant is always tragic, especially when caused by human beings. Most young female elephants, if without a calf, will be pregnant and so when any young animal dies, the chance of pregnancy is high. That by itself is not what should cause outrage.

Poisoned pineapples or traps being employed by local villagers will kill hundreds of animals, whether wild pig or deer, possibly the intended quarry. The tragedy is that this cycle of human-animal conflict is getting worse by the year and the tolerance level of the local community on the ground is wearing thin.

I don’t think most news channels or papers got the issue right at all. It is not an issue of anyone trying to kill an elephant, let alone a pregnant elephant, by intentionally offering it a pineapple! In fact there is absolutely no proof there ever was a pineapple. People saw the elephant wounded in the river and then made up everything else.

What is your considered view on the man-elephant conflict?

About 400 people are killed every year on average and 100-200 elephants also lose their lives due to such conflicts in India. This conflict is age old; it is mentioned even in the Rig Veda! But the escalation of conflict is steep now.

Also people’s tolerance is decreasing rapidly. If you see tribal cultures or old communities, they are very tolerant. If elephants eat some crop, they say this is part of nature, or this is what god willed. No longer. They are willing to take up arms and drive away elephants.

Remember, elephants have been in India for 3 million years or more, humans maybe for half a million! To describe an elephant in a simple way is to say Big Intelligent Social Nomad. It is big, a mega herbivore, so needs a lot to eat. It has to wander from place to place. However it does not wander aimlessly. Elephants have fixed movement routes from one habitat to the other and when the forests regrow, they come back. It is annual and cyclical. We have now built roads and rail, grown crops and mine for minerals on the lands elephants used for millennia. When the elephants try to find that route back, it is tragic. Either they are chased away by drives, or small arms or poached or poisoned. They also kill people they come into contact with if they feel threatened. So it is a cycle of destruction.

About 100-200 elephants also lose their lives due to such man-elephant conflict in India every year // Credit: WTI

Do you think that policymaking does not factor in habitat loss, the major cause for such conflicts?

It does factor. In wildlife policymaking and conservation policymaking, it is a key principle. But not in other national policy exercises. If the forest department or ministry of environment proposes a policy, it is not implemented by hundreds of other line agencies. Miners still want leases, railways or roadways still want easiest options out and local villagers don’t read policy. It is a much larger circular issue that always puts humans as the primary beneficiary rather than as part of nature.

When animals like monkey, wild boar become a nuisance, the central government often declares them vermin on the requests made by state governments under section 62 of Wildlife Protection Act for selective slaughter. Farmers also (out of compulsion) opt for illegal killings of these animals while protecting their crops. According to you, what are the possible solutions to tackle such situations?

I don’t think the idea of large-scale culling is neither required nor ethical in the Indian context. Yes, a particular individual which can’t be tackled in any other way will have to be removed from the ecosystem, just as particular humans are removed from society for crime. The correct approach is to tackle the root problem. If it is passage, then give passage.  If you are growing a palatable crop for the animal, then guard your crop. Electric fences, if maintained well, can be a good deterrent against a number of wildlife conflicts.

However, two important things. One is that each kind of conflict depending on cause and locale must have a kind of solution. You can’t have a generic one. There are plenty of manuals and guidelines available for people.

Two, if you are living with other living beings there will always be conflict. It can never not be there. We can minimise it and try to live as much in tandem with nature as possible.

(Cover: Vivek Menon is the founder, executive director and CEO of Wildlife Trust of India (WTI))