Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 110, 10 June 2020

India: Pregnant elephant death garners public outcry against policy fault lines
Sayan Banerjee

In the news 

A female elephant died at the Veliyar river under the Mannarkadd division in Palakkad district in Kerala, India due to an oral injury from consuming a firecracker filled fruit. The injury restricted her from further feeding, and due to subsequent hunger and exhaustion, the elephant drowned in the river. During the post-mortem, it was found that the elephant was pregnant. This ghastly incident and visuals led to an uproar among the general public with further emotional outbursts and political mudslinging. This episode has brought the plight of wild elephants and the issue of human-elephant (wildlife) conflict to the forefront.
Issues at large 

First, complex ecological losses have led to negative human-animal interactions. In India, population growth, habitat loss and fragmentation, agricultural and industrial expansion have caused significant overlap of resource and space between humans and wildlife. This has led to tangible losses and decreased wellbeing for both humans and wildlife. The emotional and political outrage during this particular incident in Kerala and many other similar incidents across India in general, hide the complex environment through which the negative interactions between humans and wildlife unfold. Colonial and post-independence forest policies, industrial and agricultural land-use strategies and urbanization have a direct bearing on today's violent negative human-wildlife interactions. 
Second, more conflict-prone the animal species mean dangerous defensive methods by a human. Various species, such as herbivores (Asian elephants, Gaur, wild boar, macaques etc.) and carnivores (tiger, leopard, wolf, dhole etc.) have been found to be conflict-prone, and various measures such as protected area-based conservation policies, compensation for losses, conflict mitigation strategies, community-based conservation, livelihood management could not create a durable solution to this conflict. As a result affected people sometimes resort to crude methods such as usage of firecrackers or submerging live electrical wire on the field. Governmental data suggests that between 2014- 2017, 1,144 humans got killed by tiger and elephant and in the same time, 345 elephants and 84 tigers lost their lives due to the conflict. 

In perspective 

First, long term conflict management will require significant changes in land use policies and wildlife as well as farmer-friendly habitat management. In the short term, the compensation system needs to be revamped, as, presently, it is inadequate, cumbersome and time-consuming. 
Second, changes in livelihood and lifestyle have changed wildlife behaviour and the response of wildlife towards humans, often in detriment to each other. Only biology or sociology alone cannot address this complex issue. Rather, an interdisciplinary environment consisting of expertise from environmental science, social sciences as well as humanities needs to be created to bring out innovative solutions.
Last, human-wildlife conflict is often a misnomer, as humans and wildlife are not consciously conflicting with each other. Rather, recent scholarship has shown that there is often a conflict between various human-groups about wildlife. This human-human conflict is often realized through differential goals of rural farming communities and urban animal rights or conservation groups. Shifting focus towards this can lead to better conflict resolution mechanisms. Short term emotional and political outbursts will not serve any purpose.

Sayan Banerjee is a PhD scholar at the National Institute of Advanced Studies.

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