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India's Giant Trespassers

Abhishek Dhulia

May 31, 2016

In India, there have been a number of cases of elephants wreaking havoc in residential areas in recent years. The worrying trend has led to a search for new ways for humans and elephants to live in harmony.

A wild Indian elephant wandered into a residential area and went on a rampage, destroying more than 100 buildings. Similar incidents are said to claim the lives of some 400 people every year.

The southern state of Kerala has the largest population of elephants in the country. In a remote part of the state, local people said one tall tree was knocked down by an elephant.

"The elephants come into the field this way. This is the path they take. They've destroyed everything here," one resident there says.

Elephants are traditionally worshipped in India, but many residents there have become scared.

"The elephants come here almost every day to eat the coconuts. Even if we throw bricks at them, they don't go away," says a local man.

A huge male elephant stops next to some farmland. It carries on eating, showing no signs of being afraid of the people. Elsewhere, an elephant approaches a busy road, apparently not scared of the cars.

Ajay Desai is a consultant with World Wide Fund for Nature. He has studied the ecology of elephants for more than 30 years. He says they're facing food shortages due to the exploitation of forests amid fast economic growth.

"All this contributes to reducing the food of elephants and then they are obligated to raid because they have no resources to survive on," Desai says.

One young elephant was left behind in a village. It got separated from its herd when being chased away from farmland.

"We tried for 4 days to return him to the herd, but nothing worked. He must miss his mother," a village resident says.

Indian elephants are an endangered species, and are protected by the government. Killing or wounding them is prohibited.

Several measures have been put in place to bring about peaceful coexistence.

A deep ditch was dug along one forest boundary to stop elephants from coming out. But security camera footage shows an elephant climbing the bank.

Local people then installed an electric fence, which delivers a weak shock to animals that touch it. But elephants are smart. Once they find out the shocks aren't fatal, the fence may become ineffective.

For now, locals must depend on their eyes. They stand guard in watchtowers from dusk until dawn, chasing elephants back into the forest with firecrackers.

"So what eventually happens is that they learn to overcome our tactics to stop them. So we need to keep up with their learning process. We also need to understand their physical capabilities," Desai says.

The local government has a new tactic -- countering elephants with elephants. Wild elephants are thought to be afraid of domesticated ones because the latter are usually large, well fed and accompanied by their trainer.

"The wild elephants are afraid of captive elephants because they are more powerful," says a worker involved with the program.

Desai is developing an alarm with the World Wide Fund for Nature. It senses animals' heat and warns residents when elephants are approaching.

"If you take simply a very crude approach of saying this is elephant habitat and that is people's, it may not work to the best interests of the both," Desai says. "But if you take a midpoint which is balanced in a way and, you know, and managed in a way that allows ideal conditions for both...."

He and others in India continue to seek new ways to help elephants and humans coexist in peace.


NHK World's Abhishek Duhlia joined anchor Aki Shibuya in the studio from New Delhi.

Shibuya: So Abhishek, people in India appear to be having a problem trying to balance conservation and development.

Duhlia: Well, the latest data show that the number of wild elephants in the country has doubled from around 15,000 in the 1980s, to 30,000 in 2012. This came about because of successful conservation measures. But as the elephant population has grown, the amount of forested areas where they have traditionally lived has shrunk.

Most of the blame can be put down to development and urbanization following years of economic growth. Wild elephants and humans are now living in closer proximity to each other than ever before. That's why conflicts are on the increase. A survey shows that as many as one million Indians farmers have experienced crop damage caused by elephants.

Killing wild elephants is not allowed, because the animals are considered sacred in the Hindu religion, as well as being an endangered species. So people find themselves in a dilemma.

Shibuya: What about the government? Are any measures being considered at the government level?

Duhlia: To deal with the problem, the Indian government set up an "elephant task force" in 2010. The unit has been working to limit human-elephant interaction as much as possible. Its goal is to protect elephant reserves from human encroachment, and to secure migratory routes so that elephants can freely move from one forest to another.

But the efforts are not producing the intended results because of a lack of funding and personnel. Most of the budget is apparently being used to help people who suffered damage caused by elephants. This means little is left to pay for the other measures.

The government has been saying it wants to create another body to tackle the elephant problem, but that hasn't happened yet. So a more effective plan is needed to ensure that elephants and humans not only coexist, but thrive.