Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Where should the elephants go?

Amirtharaj Christy Williams

Poisoned elephant
Elephants cannot win a battle with humans

There are no winners when elephants and humans compete for the same resources, says Christy Williams. But, he argues, intelligent buying by western consumers, and informed policies from governments in areas where elephants occur, could reduce the problem.

As night fell over the southern islands, I worked fast to fix a collar around an elephant's neck.

She had just sent me on an undignified flight through the air with a swish of her trunk - and this when she had been almost fully sedated.

To avoid a second hit, I crouched under the belly of a big camp tusker standing alongside her. An experienced veteran vital to our task of tranquillising and collaring wild elephants, this large male remained unruffled.

House trampled by elephants
The brunt of the conflict is borne by local communities and the beleaguered giants who stand no chance against the destructive power of humans

But I was still disconcerted and nervous with the angry trumpeting of her family herd from just beyond the surrounding bushes.

This lot was being kept at bay by another camp tusker and his mahout who used mock charges and shouting to dissuade the distressed elephants.

By the time we finished, it was pitch black. Exhausted, we hit the sack.

That was November 2006.

We were in an illegal coffee plantation inside the Bukit Barisan Selatan (BBS) National Park in Sumatra, Indonesia. My WWF colleagues and Indonesian government partners had summoned me because villagers were threatening to kill the small "problem" herd.

The BBS herd had already suffered at the hands of humans, and their number was down from more than 30 in the year 2000 to six by June 2006.

Our solution was to create an early-warning system involving a Global Positioning System (GPS) collar fixed on one of the elephants in this herd.

The GPS location data from the transmitter on the collar - beamed via satellite to a website - enabled us to follow the herd and warn villagers ahead of the approaching elephants.

Tough choices

In the more than 15 years I have been involved in elephant conservation and research, the storyline of the Asian elephant is depressingly similar.

With fire in her eyes, she said that if people like me were so interested in conserving elephants, we should take the elephants with us and tie them in our backyards

The country, the people, the language or the retribution are different, but the cause for elephant-human conflict remains the same - humans displacing elephants from their natural habitat.

Twelve years ago, I trekked to a remote village in the Garo Hills in north-east India to investigate the death of a two-month old human infant, killed by an elephant.

A bull elephant had entered the village - a cluster of bamboo huts on stilts - in search of food.

During the commotion a couple rushed out in panic and left their sleeping infant inside their tiny hut. Before they could turn back, the elephant had pushed the hut down, crushing the baby to death.

It broke my heart to see the mother's raw pain and her tired and resigned eyes as she narrated the incident.

She asked why I was there and I told her I was doing a survey of elephants and elephant-human conflict.

With a sudden fire in her eyes, she said that if people like me were so interested in conserving elephants, we should take the elephants with us and tie them in our backyards.

Elephant and calf
Elephants can be seen differently in communities living close by

That comment stayed in my mind; but the significance of the words came to haunt me when I was doing my PhD fieldwork on elephants in Rajaji National Park four years later.

In 1998, I lived in a small field camp, and elephants would sometimes come to our camp and sniff about for the pinches of cooking salt we would strategically leave for them under a tree.

One night, a herd of pachyderms smashed my kitchen, took a bag of salt and spread it around the field camp.

For the next two months, elephants visited every night looking for salt in the soil around the camp.

It was a nightmarish experience. And I was living in a solid concrete building!

Imagine the psychological impact of elephant raids on villagers living in fragile mud and bamboo huts.

Being at the receiving end certainly helped me have a deeper understanding of what this conflict really meant.

Understanding the threats

In India, Nepal and Bangladesh, humans encroach on elephant habitats, which are further fragmented by roads, canals, dams, mines.

Across South East Asia, forest loss has been largely fuelled by legal (and illegal) conversion of elephant habitat to oil palm and other plantation crops including acacia, rubber, coffee and tea.

All these factors combine to worsen human-animal conflicts, and it is vital that any solutions we seek are based on our understanding of the behaviour of these intelligent animals.

Findings of studies across India, Sri Lanka and Malaysia reveal some general patterns that might help us to avoid the worst conflicts.

Generally, elephants need about 200 sq km of forest home range.

Makeshift shelter
Villagers in Assam built this makeshift tree shelter because of elephants

A female elephant will almost always live and die inside the home range where she was born. Males disperse from their family groups when about 10 years and eventually find their own home range.

In large forest areas where all the elephant home ranges are contained within forested habitat, there is very little conflict.

As more humans move into forested habitats, elephant-human conflicts are born.

The encroachers, lacking technical help and access to effective and humane mitigation methods, retaliate by throwing burning tyres, shooting at the beasts with sharpened nails, even by laying out foods laced with killer pesticides.

In 2001, more than 15 elephants were killed in one incident near the Nameri Tiger Reserve when elephants ate pumpkins laced with Dimecron, a pesticide that is banned in Assam, but easily available nonetheless.

But more wholesale damage is caused by sanctioned habitat clearing at the hands of short-sighted government officials who encourage large areas to be set aside for monoculture cash-crop plantations or infrastructural and development projects.

Elephants are virtually led to the slaughter by the very governments mandated to protect them.

In India, we have seen this with the collusion of corrupt officials and academics writing fake Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) designed to serve the interest of a small group of politicians, industrialists or contractors who profit from the untruths.

"Mitigation" measures most often ignore elephant behaviour or ecology, since the teams that conduct the EIAs lack the expertise to deal with such delicate issues.

The brunt of the resulting conflict is borne by local communities and the beleaguered giants who stand no chance against the destructive power of humans.

No winners

Two months ago, I received word that the herd in BBS whose matriarch we had collared had killed a human mother and child in an illegal settlement within the park.

Today, our receipts can be almost as important as our vote

They were the only two who had not moved from the settlement despite being warned by our field team.

A few days later, I was sent images of two elephants that were killed in retaliation.

As an elephant biologist, I was filled with utter despair for the fate of the pachyderms.

As a father of two young children, I was wracked by the human tragedy that had unfolded, and remembered my own time in that dark forest building, as marauding elephants milled around me.

A dreadful realisation struck me - there are no winners when elephants and humans clash. Everyone loses.

What can we do?

Today, our receipts can be almost as important as our vote.

To ensure elephant habitat isn't needlessly destroyed, buy Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified timber and certified coffee; and if you aren't sure whether a product has been sustainably sourced or not, then ask.

Amirtharaj Christy Williams is a biologist with WWF's Asian elephant and rhino programme

The Green Room is a series of opinion articles on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website


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