In the process of screening the film, "Elephants in the Coffee", often the questions asked are about the similar conflicts in Africa. Many people are aware of conflicts persisting in Africa but not so much happening in India. They are also not aware that ivory poaching is not the major threat to Asian elephants but the shrinking landscape!
The global species conservation group, IUCN says, 'The search for effective measures to deal with human-elephant conflict is one of the most significant challenges for elephant management.'. Indeed, in the African continent, as landscape are decreasing, elephants in addition face an uphill battle for survival, both for their ivory as well as losing their natural corridors. Much of the land has been taken away for plantations and is getting more and more fragmented. Elephant is the largest land mammal and protecting their land also helps to save the surrounding biodiversity and the woodland forests.
Though the extent of human-elephant conflict in Africa is not as expansive as in Asia, the mitigating efforts and to create large awareness to co-exist is significant. Among several mitigating efforts constantly being tried as Elephant & Bee Project.
Elephants often move quietly at night and crop ride, destroy homes and threaten humans often their might killing people. To protect their crops, livelihood and dwellings, people throw stones, ignite fire crackers or sometimes shoot at them. This leads to heightened aggression and few elephants don't get scared but charge forward. In this scenario continued research has indicated that elephants retreat to the sound of bees in their natural environment. The buzzing sound of bee hives and often honey bee stings on their sensitive parts such as eyes, ears and up their trunks makes them weary of the bees. With their sharp memory, elephants deter from the area for any possible future bee stings.
In an experiment many farmers in Kenya through a collaborative project are installing fence posts along the farming boundaries in an uniform distance of 10 metres. Each of these beehives are connected through a wire string and if elephants come and break the fence, the bee hive nests get disturbed and they start flying around often deterring the elephant to retreat. This experiment adapted in many farms across Africa and now in India too is fairly successful, as long the farmers keep the posts and bee hives in good condition. This approach is also sustainable for farmers in harvesting honey and keeping themselves elephant friendly in a natural way.
In addition to being a deterrent, honey bees are also natural pollinators increasing yields for farmers and helping them sell honey extracted from the hives. Extracting honey is an age old tradition for many farmers that has been adapted for generations.
Across Africa and Asia where elephant conflicts are at a dangerously alarming situation, people have put solar and grid electric fences passing low voltage electricity. This method has not been successful primarily due to the intelligence of the animal itself. Elephants learn quickly that this area is dangerous for their walk through and often understand breaking the circuit through breaking the post or knocking down the fence will break the electric circuit. Once the fence is down, there is no electricity and they can just cross over easily.
In this backdrop, are honey bees the best solution for the conflict? Not so much according to the new research conducted by Mduduzi Ndlovu by the University of Free State. In continuation of the effects of bees for an extended period of time, they find elephants are getting habituated to the threat. The research conclude that treatment evoking both the olfactory and auditory cues of a ‘bee threat’ is required to deter wild elephants. Also, most elephant movement is the night times when ambient temperatures are low and the bees are more passive and aren't active in low temperatures.
Their research findings available on Creative Common Attribution License clearly highlight that, the combination of sound and scent was a more realistic representation of a bee threat, which elicited a greater response from the elephants because: (1) elephants likely associated this combined stimulus with the presence of an active beehive, which indicated a greater threat to elephants than the sound of a passing swarm; and (2) elephants rely on both auditory and olfactory cues to detect a threat.
And this experiment in many of the Asian countries including India is still in an evolving process and has not proved to be hundred percent effective. There is much scope and constant evolution to analyze and find a pragmatic solution to the persistent and growing human-elephant conflict.
A recent video sent by a friend Rajeev N Kurup shares an interesting story of human empathy towards elephants. There are two different things to look into in this scenario...one of course, it shows how far inside are elephants coming in towards the human habitation. As this report shows in The Hindu, in recent years, the wild elephants coming to the human habitation has increased considerably. The second of course is the courage and empathy of the forest staff when adversity forces elephant calf to separate. No one wants an orphan and particularly so with the wild animals. It is heartening to see the forest official carrying a calf on his shoulders to join the calf back to the herd.
As much as we continue to think elephants and humans are in conflict, this video is an indication of the extraordinary efforts of individuals, department people as well as the common man when situation arises to protect the species. it is not often one can come across such acts of courage and a commitment to protect the young elephant calf. It was more heartening to see that the herd accepted the young calf back into their herd and it was all joyous as the young calf rightfully went back into the wild than becoming an orphan. This is also a remainder for us humans, if we can find such mechanism to include children too in such circumstances and connect them to families. We see so many orphaned children due to diverse forces of irrational judgement from humans. It is disheartening to see their wonderful life taken away and not given the right opportunity in many many instances. Please watch this video and let's celebrate such acts of empathy be it for the wild or for the human life!!!!
Here is a note from Rajeev N. Kurup on the background of this video...
A forest department official who rushed a baby elephant to its mother by carrying it on his shoulders is the new star on social media. It’s usual for man to ride an elephant, but it’s unheard of the other way. The photo of the forest official carrying the elephant calf immediately caught eyeballs and went viral on social media. The one-month-old calf got stuck in mud after it fell into a canal at Nellimala at Ooty’s Mettupalayam range. Officials from the Mettupalayam forest extricated the calf by toiling hard, but unknowingly separated it from its mother which was waiting nearby. The photo was of their efforts to reunite the baby with its mother. The road from the Vanabhadra Kaliamman temple in Mettupalayam to Thekkampatti has reserve forests on one side and the Bhavani River on the other.
It all started on Tuesday. A local man on a tractor found a cow elephant stayed put on the road. The driver raced the sound of the tractor expecting the animal to move away, but it instead tried to attack the tractor. Forest officials who reached the spot chased the elephant and its herd back to the forest by bursting crackers. That was when they heard the cries of the baby elephant trapped in the canal and realized that the elephant on the road was its mother waiting for her calf. The forest department team rescued the calf and immediately took it to the herd with one of the officials carrying it on his shoulders. The elephant herd was in the Nellithurai area. But the calf returned to the officials every time they tried to push it towards the group. They waited for two days, feeding the calf Lactogen, glucose and coconut water in between. Finally, the mother approached its calf on Thursday evening. The forest department team returned satisfied as the elephant took the calf back to the herd.
Losing shelter, livelihood and often life when an elephant walks into your home in the middle of the night!
How dangerous it is to be at the mercy of elephant when they walk quietly into your home crossing over many kilometers from their natural habitat? Here is a glimpse of this family losing their home, food in the kitchen and trampling around their little cultivated land. Walking in the middle of the night, crossing over from the other side of the hill, elephants came marching trampling everything under their feet, breaking apart fences, feeding on whatever was available around fresh, tender and tasty...Giant foot prints they may be, but give no warning and create no sound, catching the family off guard. Came, every step leading to the smell of rice / other vegetables/fruits etc. in the mud plastered loosely constructed home of the humble farmer, living over 10 kilometers away from the buffer area of the park. Young family of 4 children living in the adjacent room had little chances to escape! In the middle of the night, in pitch darkness, with no electricity but kerosene lamp, they didn't have a chance to outpace the mighty strides of an adult elephant. Presence of mind and a bit of good luck, family survives to the destruction of the elephants mother braving the situation and carrying her young child to the top of the temporary tree house.
Elephants didn't have mercy! They did what they wanted to, leaving the family in tatters and enormous destruction. Losing almost everything that was in their home, the small farmer is trying to rebuild himself, mother caring for 4 children while earning additional money through many other chores.
How would one react to such situations? Let's put ourselves in those situations with young family and how would it be to face up to the wrath of mighty elephants?
The elephant-human conflict can make humans get some funny ideas, and one of them here is an example of that. The report says, the forest department Vice-Chairman wants to sterilize the elephants to control the population. Rather than a scientific, technology driven solution to the ever growing conflict in the Coffee growing region of Karnataka, this approach is so short sighted and oddly irrational to say the least.
Would that in anyway decrease the ongoing conflict in the region? Would that reduce the capture of wild elephants and make them live in captivity for life? Neither of them will happen with the solution that has been proposed. Least of all, the elephant migrating to the coffee estates will not reduce in anyway !!!
A recent report in one of India's largest Newspaper Times of India covered an interesting feature on workers leaving the coffee estates and departing to their home town. This story is an interesting perspective on the expansion of the coffee trade, and how the whole world around its people and land are constantly changing. Displacing people, who would have traveled hundreds of miles as the story indicates the widespread growth of coffee industry in the Coorg region, where much of the film "Elephants in the Coffee", was filmed and interviews were collaborated. We have repeatedly heard fro the small coffee farmers that having a robust group of picking workers during the season is becoming more and more difficult. Without the constant source of workers, who often were local daily wage laborers, who are now looking to go out for masonry or civil jobs with government contractors, the farming community has opened itself to migrant workers.
Is that profitable to farmers at all? No, it is not. Most migrant workers don't have the skill set nor the tenacity to work long hours in the coffee estates, but one that gets them security for few months and later dislodges them to do other things. And the culture of working in a coffee farm is quite different to these workers who come from plain lands and who are not exposed to the new climate, and the surroundings. Of course, they come in contact with elephants, who are constantly around the estates and most of them have never even heard nor exposed to seeing one ever in their life. Their first reaction often is like seeing a cattle and they often get closer to the elephants with the hope that nothing happens. Many farmers are now having a nightmare having workers from other regions to be employed for their daily work. The cell phone alert system from Tata's can only be successful in those areas where they have cell towers to have good access and where these workers have cell phones to use.
There are many other systems like flashing around the main roads, digital bill boards, etc. to get the attention of humans to the presence of elephants around. It is not an easy to constantly keep up with the elephants roaming around coffee or tea estates as a matter of fact. And this insecurity with the workers on a daily basis is not productive and beneficial to the farmers who depend on the harvest for making a sustainable production.
Picture courtesy: Karthik Krishnan
Elephants in the Coffee travels to Tonasket, Washington, screening at the Community Cultural Center.
A recent surfaced on the internet with over 100 elephants crossing the agricultural land connecting with few of the barren lands in Odisha. Filmed by Mr. Sanjib Das, the video affirms the ongoing challenges of elephant corridors and the land lost by the large mammals in their struggle for survival. While Elephants in the Coffee continue to share the two sides of the agricultural conflict, in the end it looks like the conservation measures are only shortsighted if there is no land for the elephants to exist within their own domain. I often wonder, in the food chain, man sits at the top and the requirement for survival and greed! Where will elephants eventually find a safe haven for their existence. We think of co-existence so often, and that can only happen with the man considering to keep an open mind and reduce his foot print in every inch of the elephantine land that is already shrinking beyond boundaries.
Dr. Thomas Grant
Professor of Journalism at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College