In the wake of the deaths of four elephants to electrocution when they struck a power line near Thithimathi in Karnataka, the government is proposing more solar electric fencing to control elephant movements around the national park.
Solar electric fencing is already used around many coffee plantations, and we saw that such fencing was also being used in park very close to the city of Bangalore. The solar fences have low enough voltage that they won't kill elephants, yet high enough that it will stop elephants from trying to break through it.
However, the use of solar electric fences has generally been found to less effective than expected. The common reaction of elephants is to keep walking until they get around the obstruction. That means the use of such fencing around a contained coffee estate is generally more effective than when used to prevent elephant movement in a general sense, as the government is contemplating. Such fences act more like a seawall; they merely concentrate the efforts of elephants movements toward less protected areas. Containing the entire park would be extremely expensive.
The other problem is maintaining fences. Solar fences and their batteries require constant maintenance, and elephants can break through fences when the power is down. Then once they get out, they are restrained from getting back inside the park.
Biologist Karthic Krishnan, who works with a large coffee estate to reduce elephant conflicts, says electric fences worked at first, but elephants have found ways to getting past them. He says he and his workers have seen elephants throw rocks or knock down trees to break a fence and cross it.
Sadly, electric fences seem like an ineffective solution to the greater problem of co-existence with elephants.
Activist Rajeev N Kurup in Kerala has launched a petition asking the Forest Department there to quit its practice of capturing troublesome elephants, caging them and forcing the endangered animals into a life of submission.
What is happening in Kerala, according to Kurup, is very much like what we documented in Karnataka in "Elephants in the Coffee." What is surprising, perhaps, is how few elephants are being captured like this in Kerala.
Kurup writes, "In the last eight months, the Kerala Forest Department, caught not one, but three giant tuskers in various locations in the state, and is busy "training" them in order to convert these wild creatures to obedient slave elephants."
What we saw in Karnataka was capture on a much larger scale. The state got permission to capture 25 elephants in 2012, and sought capture of another 25 elephants in 2014. We saw 16 cages in Karnataka, usually four at each location.
What Kurup says about the future for elephants rings true: "The forest department along with people's representatives and local governing bodies, are developing strategies and hatching plans to capture many many more wild elephants and bring them into captivity."
Kurup is a tireless activist with a significant following. In a day, he gathered 2,000 signatures. The question, however, is what alternatives the Forest Department might seek when an elephant kills someone. The most direct answer is to capture and cage the animal.
More complex responses, such as working with farmers to promote co-existence, are much more difficult. And the solution preferred by some conservationists, to remove people from the lands where elephants roam, seems unlikely.
Dr. Thomas Grant
Professor of Journalism at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College