The primary goal of this course to introduce UW students to India’s environmental policies pertaining to conservation and development. Through lectures, discussions and individual research, students will gain insights about how these policies were developed, put in place, and their outcomes.

This blog site highlights student accomplishments and travel experiences to India.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Human-elephant conflict: an experience with stakeholders in Southern India

Alanna Elder
August 2015 trip to Coimbatore, India

During the spring of 2015, I took the Environmental Policy, Conservation and Development in India. The class provided a snapshot of environmental challenges in India, and then we chose topics for individual study. I began a literature review of human – elephant conflict and spent the next three months in Laramie getting lost in the library’s database; in the vastness of India; in a problem that puzzles land managers around the world. By the end of the semester, I had a paper that I thought was accurate and an understanding that was almost tangible because I dug for it. I doubted, however, whether everything I had read would check out on the ground. In order to confirm that what I wrote was real, I wanted to see humans, elephants, and their overlapping territories in real dimensions.

Nicole and Alanna visited a corridor frequently
used by the elephants to obtain water
Thanks to funding from the College of Agriculture’s SEND program, and the Haub School for Environment and Natural Resource’s Research and Creative Activities grant, I was able to do just that.

I traveled to Coimbatore, India in August 2015 with Dr. Sivanpillai, ENR professor Courtney Carlson, and Nicole Reed, a classmate who had researched crop raiding by elephants.

There we met two faculty members from Kongunadu Arts and Sciences College, Drs. S. Raja (Zoologists) and K. Thenmozhi (Botanist). They guided us to farms and forest offices and provided insight into elephant behavior and the effects of invasive plants on elephant habitat.

Coimbatore Forest District is a hot zone for the human-elephant conflict in the state of Tamil Nadu, and includes agricultural plains as well as the rain forest reserves of the Western Ghats.

Farmers use these observation decks for monitoring elephant movement
Forest Department reports Dr. Raja had acquired showed that one range within the district had the highest rates of crop raiding, so that was where we started. Our conversations with farmers, officials and scientists sometimes echoed verbatim what we had read, or even cited articles we recognized. Still, these perspectives were fuller coming from people with a stake in the problem. The broken fences were theirs, and the trampled crops. Some had the memory of meeting an elephant, a reverence for the animal, a home to keep or a landscape to preserve.

Nearly everyone we talked to attributes the problem to habitat loss, as city borders continue to expand into forests formerly dominated by wildlife. The farmers we met made clear the choices of people living along the forest boundary, who would attempt to protect crops with trenches, fences, or night guarding. Some had switched from high-sucrose plants to curry, which elephants don’t generally touch. Others had given up farming altogether.

Inside a brick kiln in Coimbatore
A tribal woman living along an elephant corridor told us that she and her family had quit growing beans to work in a brick kiln. We could spot its tongue of smoke in the valley below her home. Thirty years ago, she had only seen elephants on occasion, and from a distance. Now, they pass her house almost daily. She said, “Where else can they go?”

Another family we visited had lost five coconut trees in two weeks. In one field, they showed us a trunk rubbed smooth by an elephant trying to uproot the tree. Nearby a tree was grounded, carved out of the kernels elephants tend to eat. The couple had electric fencing (not entirely elephant proof) around a different field, but chose to leave this one open, knowing that wildlife in the area were stressed for water. Who were they to stand in the way of survival?

Survival was an idea we heard throughout the trip, and it became increasingly hard to pin down. It is a motive, a reality, an apology – it is a force that puts every living thing in conflict with something else. According to the family, a man was harvesting dirt illegally from the land adjacent to their farm, selling soil to buy his food. Behind this field with the toppled coconuts, there was a slow-growing cavern in the scrub. The papers I read could not have shown me what survival looked like.

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