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Essay

Ashna D

Year-Prize: The 13th Eco-generation Environmental Essay Competition     Item: Time for Nature

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SAVING OUR VULNERABLE ELEPHANTS BY RESOLVING HUMAN-WILDLIFE CONFLICT

 

Ashna D (India)
Honorable Mentions

 

 

I belong to the southern Indian state of Kerala. Growing up, elephants were a valuable part of my culture, and I used every opportunity to interact with the majestic pachyderms. Today, the world’s biodiversity is declining at alarming rates due to climate change and other anthropogenic changes. From forest fires to rampant poaching of endangered species, human greed has pushed nature to retaliate in destructive ways. In my community, human beings are continuing to displace our endangered Asian elephant populations. Our reckless disregard for this versatile species poses a grave threat to our regional flora and fauna.

Elephants are highly intelligent, compassionate, and sentient creatures. Research has found that elephants, much like humans, can recognize others' feelings and offer care and affection to herd members and human beings. But elephants never forget. When exposed to threatening or unsafe conditions, the experiences they have live with them forever. Over the last few months, two wild elephants, including one pregnant female elephant, that wandered into villages searching for food, innocently consumed two fruits that had crackers inside. Within seconds, the crackers burst in their mouths, causing enormous pain. Both the elephants died, one while standing in the water only to subsequently drown. The incident received widespread global attention, with environmentalists and the public calling for severe punishment of the local farmers who had unintentionally placed these traps to ward off wild boars from harming their crop. Such human-elephant conflicts are nothing new in the region.

For several years, there has been a steady increase in the number of human settlements in and around crucial elephant habitats to convert forest land into agricultural fields and polluting industries. Such widespread encroachment of elephant habitats has substantially escalated damage and both human and animal deaths arising from human-elephant conflicts. In Kerala, poverty-stricken local farmers have begun growing higher value food crops such as banana and coconut that attract elephants to their farms. A failure on the part of governments to scientifically cull wild boars has resulted in illegal activities such as planting food crops to avoid large scale losses to their livelihoods. Further, studies show that forest officials offer meager compensations to farmers whose crops have been destroyed by the elephants. Under such circumstances, helpless farmers have little incentive to conserve this vital species.

India is home to nearly 60% of the Asian elephant population. The IUCN recognizes elephants as a 'keystone species' as they help revive ecosystems. A failure to conserve the elephant population can have a cascading effect on other smaller species along the food chain. The fragmentation of habitats and dumping near forest fringes has resulted in driving elephant herds out of forests and into nearby villages. The good news is that this problem has many solutions. Experience from around the world shows that communities willing to peacefully coexist with wildlife, can learn to live with elephants and protect both human and wildlife interests. Local communities have learned to cultivate non-preferred crops and use innovative techniques such as alarm systems, chili ropes, watchtowers, elephant response teams, and bio-fencing to keep away elephant herds.

Similarly, with the help of forest officials and local governments', monitoring devices have helped track elephant movement to restrict their access to spacious natural surroundings. Controlling the spread of invasive species and forming emergency response teams to capture and remove rogue elephants has also helped reduce conflicts. Elephant families are tight-knight groups that move together. In Kerala, villages' relocation from critical elephant corridors and buffer zones can dramatically help avoid dangerous human-elephant interactions. Simultaneously, if local communities actively involve themselves in creating awareness about the importance coexisting with elephant we can preserve their habitats. Villagers in Africa work side by side with NGOs, and even private corporations to foster healthy relationships with elephant herds and effectively generate livelihoods through eco-tourism.

The enormous backlash surrounding the recent deaths of the two elephants sought to polarise the debate by pitting conservation objectives against “cruel” local farmers' interests. However, this narrative is far from reality. From time immemorial, Indian culture has perceived elephants as sacred animals and as integral to human lives. Local communities and forest dwellers have cherished their relationships with wildlife and learned to guard against resource exploitation at the cost of conservation goals. Renowned environmental economist Elinor Ostrom rightly pointed out that a 'community commons approach' that factors in prior ownership, indigenous knowledge and culture, and one that accommodates local communities' needs will best ensure a dignified life for both humans and wildlife. Such an approach, coupled with innovative technology, can help prevent habitat loss and harm to elephants, while simultaneously promoting local development. Giving excessive importance to stringent law enforcement and government intervention fails to recognize that environmental interests are best protected by those whose lives are intricately woven with their natural surroundings. By receiving regular feedback from forest dwellers, the movement patterns of elephants and their distinct behavioral characteristics can be studied and harmonised.

I still remember going to feed our community elephant bananas during the festive season. As he ate the fruit, his innocent eyes would fill up with happiness and he would gently place his long trunk around my shoulders. To my mind, the wreaking of havoc by the COVID-19 pandemic is a momentous warning from nature to humankind to take care of our planet. Nature always knows best. It is time for all of us to push for meaningful environmental change, no matter how small, and learn to coexist with our natural environment. As a starting step, we must first learn to view ourselves not as strangers, but as intrinsic components of the earth that we have inherited. Like all of the planet's biodiversity, elephants represent a blessing bestowed upon us by Mother nature and it is our duty to protect them. For this, we must stand together, not divided. The conscious steps we take today will pave the way for a greener tomorrow.

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