Two days before the World Elephant Day, Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar released a document outlining best practices of human-elephant conflict management in India but the booklet has come under heavy criticism from conservationists and wildlife experts.

They highlighted that the document lists out the use of concrete and iron fences among the best practices to stop the movement of elephants, even as there are examples of these measures proving fatal for India’s national heritage animal.

For instance, in 2018, an elephant died in Karnataka’s Nagarhole National Park while it was trying to leap over an iron fence made using old railway tracks. The animal had got stuck in the fence and couldn’t move forward or backwards. However, the booklet mentions that “rail fencing, though expensive, is eco-friendly and more effective than solar electric fences, elephant proof trenches, which are partially successful” and that “it has been successful in Karnataka.”

Similarly, a few years ago in Assam, an elephant died due to haemorrhage while trying to break a wall erected on an elephant migrant corridor by the Numaligarh Refinery Limited. The experts also cautioned against the use of drones, stating that they often prove to be irritants to the animal, which is not habituated to it.

On August 10, Javadekar, while releasing the 46-page booklet, said, to manage “conflicts and avoid loss of valuable lives of both humans and elephants, it is important to strengthen the human-elephant coexistence.” He stressed that India is committed to saving elephants and is working towards robust, practical and cost-effective solutions to end the human-animal conflict. He said that efforts are being made to provide “food and water to the animals in the forests itself to deal with the growing human-animal conflict cases”.

In India, the Asian elephant, an endangered species, is found across 23 states and its population is estimated to be about 29,964 as per the 2017 census. The central government has a national-level programme, Project Elephant, to spearhead the protection and welfare of elephants.

However, the pressure of habitat loss and habitat fragmentation due to pressure of infrastructure development projects, the human-elephant conflict is significant too.

According to the official data, during 2016-17 to 2018-19, 314 elephants were killed. Of these, 206 were due to electrocution, 60 due to train accidents, 21 due to poisoning and 27 elephants died due to poaching. During the same period, the conflict led to the death of 1,474 people.

‘Restrict elephants’ movement’

To avoid such conflict and death of both elephants and humans, states across India have been using a range of methods. The booklet, prepared by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change and released by Javadekar, is a guide of such inventions “successfully adopted by the elephant range states”.

According to an official statement from the ministry, it “serves as a reference manual for the adoption of the best possible site-specific mitigation measures that can be adopted to reduce human-elephant conflict.”

Asian elephants are an endangered species and their survival is threatened due to habitat fragmentation and loss. Photo credit: Kalyan Varma.

Though the minister spoke of coexistence, experts highlight that the booklet speaks against this principle and talks about “restricting elephants in their natural habitats.”.

It highlights examples of elephant-proof trenches and concrete barriers in Tamil Nadu, rubble walls, rail fence (used rail tracks), chilly fences and solar-powered high electric fences in Karnataka, bee-hive fences in Kerala, bio-fencing (made of thorny plants) in West Bengal, Assam and Tamil Nadu.

“I feel the report is taking conservation efforts back to colonial-era as it talks about restricting the movement of elephants to only forest areas – which is difficult considering a majority of the wild elephant population in India is outside forests, forest fringes or in human-used landscapes.

The emphasis of the report is on separating elephant and human spaces – something heavily advocated during conservation work in British times and still practised by western conservation scientists in Africa – while the Indian conservation ethos focuses more on sharing spaces and peaceful cohabitation with as minimal damage as possible,” conservation ecologist Aritra Kshettry told Mongabay-India.

He said even the ‘Gajah’ report that came more than ten years ago noted that elephants are inevitably being found outside forest areas and thus the way forward is peaceful coexistence.

“This report is like reversing all the work done so far. It suggests removal of animals, whenever found outside protected areas, and shifting back to forests,” said Kshettry, an INSPIRE-Fellow with the Union Ministry of Science and Technology. He leads the coexistence project, a research and conservation initiative to foster safer shared spaces between people and wildlife.

Besides talking about peaceful coexistence and efforts required for capacity building of forest staff, the 2010 ‘Gajah’ report had also called for the establishment of a National Elephant Conservation Authority similar to that of National Tiger Conservation Authority to strengthen elephant conservation work. However, it is still to see the light of the day.

There are about 30 elephant reserves across the country covering about 65,000 sq km but the reserves and corridors have poor legal protection, which means that forest land in such areas can easily be diverted for any non-forest purpose like infrastructure development projects etc.

In some reports, it has been even highlighted that elephants are moving into areas where they have not been reported in the last 200 years. Rather than taking into account elephant biology, the ministry’s document offers unempathetic suggestions to restrict the movement of elephants, an animal that covers vast distances. Such measures would instead aggravate the conflict with humans, feel experts.

Over 300 elephants were killed in the human-elephant conflict during 2016-17 and 2018-19. Photo credit Kalyan Varma.

Odisha-based wildlife expert and environmentalist Biswajit Mohanty said that India has traditional respect for elephants immortalised in our mythology, culture and religion.

“The document that the ministry has released is terrible. The ideas shown as best practices for managing human-elephant conflict are cruel. If someone takes them to the Supreme Court of India, they will be struck down. For example, the idea to use a drone is a terrible one. Recently, a drone was used to track elephants but the drone at the height of 10 metres from the ground scared the animal. Also, there are so many examples where elephants have got hurt by concrete and iron fences,” Mohanty told Mongabay-India.

A couple of wildlife researchers, who wished to remain anonymous for the fear of being blacklisted by the government authorities and not getting permits, said the booklet looks like a badly compiled school project with no application of mind and the document lists out all human-elephant conflict mitigation practices instead of only highlighting the best ones as suggested in the title. They highlighted that there are scores of silly mistakes like showing a native medicinal plant as an invasive species or even mis-spelling ‘elephant’ in three main titles in the document.

‘Elephants need space’

Besides highlighting the usage of fences and drones, the latest environment ministry report has highlighted a series of measures that are used by states across the country.

For instance, to retain elephants in their natural habitats, it highlighted the use of solar-powered borewells by Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Uttarakhand, ensuring adequate water in some dry regions, use of radio collars to monitor their movement by Karnataka and Chhattisgarh, use of drones by Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal, securing of elephant corridors and relocation of villages from elephant corridors by Kerala.

The document also talks about “guiding elephants back into their natural habitats” through measures like firecrackers/drum-beating by Odisha, bee and carnivore sounds used in Assam and Kerala, chilli smoke used in north West Bengal or adopting “alternate cropping with non-edible crops like chilli, citrus, ginger, onion” that are not liked and consumed by elephants in “forest fringes as well as areas near settlements in forest fringes” to deter elephants from reaching and raiding the crop fields.

Veterinarian Kushal Konwar Sarma said, “People living in cities have a romantic way of looking at conservation but those living on the ground have a different reality.”

“Over the past few decades, there has been a population explosion in India. Years ago, when we talked about coexistence, it allowed the encroachment of forests, but now there is no space. An elephant is a megaherbivore and needs a lot of space,” Sarma explained to Mongabay-India.

While supporting fences to control the movement of animals, Sarma said: “We can’t completely isolate them from meeting other herds or travelling on annual and seasonal migrations.”

“But fences can be used strategically to protect human lives and properties. It need not be high concrete walls, maybe bio-fences or elephant resistant trenches that can serve multiple purposes, like an irrigation system,” said Sarma. He cited an example where people at some places in north-eastern India have used fences of thorny lemons that are disliked by elephants but useful for farmers.

Many experts believe coexistence with elephants is a way forward. Photo credit: Biju Boro/AFP

Biswajit Mohanty said, “elephants need their space, and if they don’t get it this species will simply die down. There are enough examples around India wherein the efforts have resulted in recovering the degraded forests for the wildlife. We need to focus on such examples and work towards that.”

Adequate compensation must

As far as “emergency measures adopted to mitigate human-elephant conflict” is concerned, the booklet stressed on close coordination between local communities and the forest department, developing primary response teams comprising of forest department officials and village volunteers to act as the first line of defence and control crowd till an expert team reaches the spot. Such teams are functional in states like Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala, West Bengal and Odisha.

The report further talked about expediting compensation paid by the government for crop damage and loss of life due to human-elephant conflict and installation of animal detection systems near rail tracks to alert train drivers. It also advocated the use of light alert indicators at strategic locations to signal the presence of elephants and their movement – being used in Tamil Nadu.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.