Friday, October 19, 2012

Human-Elephant Conflict

The Asian elephant is a national symbol in many countries throughout Asia and has played an important role for thousands of years.  Historically, elephants were used in wars as warriors, they were used to transport goods and they were worshipped as Gods. Elephants are very unique as they are one of the few species that evoke so much attention and varied emotions from humans. Their large size, characteristic features, complex social behavior and high level of intelligence create much interest and endearment in people. However, their ability to cause huge amounts of damage and their sometimes aggressive behavior also create fear and intense animosity towards them.  This negative interactive between humans and elephants is termed `human-elephant conflict’ and is one of the most critical issues facing conservationists around the world today. This conflict has come to seriously threaten the survival of elephants in the wild.

Elephants need what we need: land, food and water. This is a fundamental problem as humans have become the elephant’s direct competitor for these resources. Where elephants roam, is where human population growth rate is accelerating. The more people there are on the planet, the more friction that is likely to occur between humans and elephants. Owing to the increasing demand for resources, humans have transformed forests, savannahs and other ecosystems into agricultural land and cities, leaving fewer resources for wildlife. Elephants have less and less habitat in which to live, leading them to wander into human settlements, and this is when the problems occur.

With increased human contact, elephants progressively raid crop fields and break down houses to get at stored crops. Elephants can cause huge amounts of damage to farmers’ crops, often eating and destroying whole fields. For example, an elephant eats around 200 kg (~440 lbs) of food per day, and a single elephant can destroy a hectare of crops in a very short time (1 hectare = 2 and half soccer fields or 40 tennis courts). Therefore, a small herd can quickly decimate a farmer's livelihood.  Cultivated food crops have been artificially selected and bred to increase their nutritional value, palatability and productivity. Therefore, these crops have become more attractive to herbivores like elephants than wild plants.  Often, the people who suffer these attacks are already economically and nutritionally vulnerable, and the loss of crops can have grave consequences for their income and food consumption. Chance encounters between elephants and people, as well as efforts of people to guard against elephants raiding, often result in the injury and death of humans. An intense animosity towards the elephants is thus created and the financial and human losses caused by elephants make local communities angry and intolerant towards them. This can result in the killing of elephants, thereby escalating human-elephant conflict and making elephant populations vulnerable to local extinction.

All over Asia, human-elephant conflict is a critical problem. In Sri Lanka the situation is very serious as every year approximately 100 elephants are killed by humans and 50 humans are killed by elephants. Without mitigating this conflict, the problem will escalate further.

A variety of traditional methods to try to reduce human-elephant conflict have been used over the past few centuries. However, following an increasing level of conflict, technological advances have resulted in the development of new methods to try to mitigate the problem. Traditional methods are easy to use, require low grade material and the costs of using them are relatively low. Examples of these techniques include chasing elephants away from fields by shouting, drum-beating, noise-making, throwing rocks and using fire, and guarding fields. More recently, people have used elephant barriers such as electrical fences, alarm systems, and trenches, as well as planting inedible crops. Novel techniques have also been created such as the use of chili and bee-hive fences to deter crop raiding elephants. Elephants do not like the smell of chili and if they come into contact with it, a skin irritation will occur. Farmers have used this knowledge and created chilli fences, where they paste chilli onto cloths and hang them up on string fences. This technique has proved to be effective in deterring elephants. Chilli bricks (sundried chilli mixed with cattle dung) are also used, as when they are burnt, they create a vapour which stops elephants from entering farms. In Kenya, honey bee fences are used. Researchers have found that elephants are actually scared of the sound of bees and so they have created fences with honey bee hives. Not only do these fences deter elephants from entering fields, but farmers are also able to make money from the honey. Other more complicated methods to reduce conflict include translocation, removing the problem animal, supplementary feeding, compensation and land use planning. All these methods are very expensive and vary in terms of degree of success.

Being intelligent and highly adaptable animals, elephants will learn to overcome many methods used for mitigation. For example, elephants have overcome trenches as they have learnt that filling up the trenches by pushing in dirt, enables them to walk across. There has been considerable variation in the success and failure of the different methods mentioned, and some methods that were initially successful may lose their effectiveness over time. Thus, there is no perfect deterrent that will work entirely on its own. Rather, it is has proved prudent to train and equip farmers with a tool box of various deterrents that, either combined or rotated, will have a greater effect than relying on any one method alone. No single method is likely to be long-term. Thus current methods have to be constantly updated and improved and ongoing research has to be conducted into new and innovative techniques.

If we continue to destroy elephant habitats at the current rate then, despite the novelty and success of some of these mitigation methods, there will be even higher levels of conflict, and we may eventually lose these beautiful creatures altogether. The loss of elephants would be one of the greatest tragedies that humans would have allowed to happen.

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