Against the Elephant: MoEFCC’s Guidelines for Human-Elephant Conflict Management

Prerna Singh Bindra and Vaishali Rawat
Elephants outside protected areas
CI archive
The "Best Practices" document doesn't consider that only a third of India’s wild elephants are in protected areas (PAs).
Rights of Passage
Ramki Sreenivasan
Landscape level protection and management practices - vital to this mega species - are missing in this document.

In August 2020, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) released an advisory document titled Best Practices of Human Elephant Conflict Management in India (attached, right). The report, authored by the Project Elephant Division of the MoEFCC and the Elephant Cell of the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun, attempts to compile current practises adopted by Forest Departments and other agencies, and is meant to serve as a guide for various Forest Departments working on mitigating the critical issue of Human-Elephant Conflict (HEC) across India.

HEC is a major issue causing great suffering to both human communities and animals: Over 400 people are killed every year by elephants, nearly half-a-million suffer crop damage; in retaliation elephants are electrocuted, poisoned, shot, chased, hounded. However, various best practices cited in the document to serve as guidelines are at odds with the ecology of the elephant, based on conditioning fear in elephants and may only serve to further aggravate the conflict. Most of the practises in this document focus on a) deterrents against elephants b) confining elephants with the idea of restricting them to Protected Areas, when they are wide-ranging nomads. Significantly, less than a third of India’s elephant population exists in PAs. These issues, along with a host of other practices, are critiqued in the letter below signed by various conservationists and ecologists.

The letter appeals that the MoEFCC consider rethinking these guidelines to incorporate the ethology and ecology of the elephant, and include proactive measures that local stakeholders can take so that there is both immediate and long-term resolution of HEC.


4th December 2020

Shri Prakash Javadekar
Union Minister of Environment, Forests and Climate Change Indira Paryavaran Bhawan
Jor Bagh, New Delhi

We would like to draw your kind attention to the Best Practices of Human Elephant Conflict Management in India authored by the Project Elephant Division of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change and the Elephant Cell of the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun, outlining best practices of human-elephant conflict management in India.

We are greatly concerned about the best practices advised in this report as these are at odds with the ecology of the elephant, and may only serve to further aggravate human elephant conflict, causing great suffering and high mortality of both people and animals.

We fear that such aggravated conflict may further endanger the Asiatic elephant (Elephas maximus) which is our national heritage animal, and deeply rooted in India’s culture.

We outline some of our concerns in this letter:

  1. Elephants outside Protected Areas: According to an official statement from the MoEFCC, the manual “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.” However, rather than taking into account elephant biology, behaviour and ecology, most of the best practices focus on restricting elephants in Protected Areas (PA) and forests. This fails to consider that less than a third of India’s wild elephant population is in PAs. It seems odd, then, for a MoEFCC Best Practice Document to advocate for restricting elephants to PAs. The MoEFCC fails to explain how this proposed policy envisages the future of the approximately two-thirds of India’s elephant population which is outside of PAs.
  2. Rights of Passage: India’s PAs are mostly small, and not sufficient to meet high forage requirements of elephants, leading to degradation of the ecosystem. Elephants need to move between forest patches to maintain the health of the ecosystem and fulfill their own dietary requirements. Instead of cordoning off PAs and elephant habitat forests, the best practice must be to barricade or protect vulnerable areas like farm lands, human habitations etc from elephant entry. The approach needs to shift from enclosing elephant habitats and passages to protection of human settlements and crop lands.
  3. Landscape level protection: It must be pointed out that until now, the MoEFCC’s guidelines and policies on HEC (including in the Gajah report, 2010) have rightly advocated landscape level protection and management practices, which are missing in this document.
  4. Concrete barriers: The measures advised in the ‘Best Practices’’ lay emphasis on concrete/masonry structures that act as barriers to restrict elephant movement. Elephants are wide ranging animals who generally follow the same migratory routes annually depending on ecological conditions. In fact, the current best practice document contradicts the 2017 guidelines of the MoEFCC which say that “barriers have the disadvantage that they can block or alter traditional migration routes of elephants and prevent genetic interchange between populations. They may therefore, at times, be contrary to the scientific principles of wildlife management. Therefore, large scale barriers need careful study before implementation. They need to be planned at a landscape level, taking into account the presence and seasonal movement patterns of elephant clans.” Even so, the Best Practise document does not take any of this into account.
  5. Rail fencing and elephant proof trenches: The guide summarises “various management interventions which have been successfully adopted by the elephant range states.” One such best practice listed is rail fencing – elephant proof trenches which are stated to have been ‘successful’ in Karnataka. However, 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, while moving towards the forest. The elephant got stuck in the fence and couldn’t move forward or backwards, and ultimately succumbed. Similarly, a few years ago in Assam, more than one elephant died due to haemorrhage while trying to break a wall illegally erected in elephant habitat/an elephant migratory corridor by the Numaligarh Refinery Limited in the Kaziranga landscape. It is strange that despite strong evidence of elephant mortality and proven inefficiency of such barriers, the MoEFCC – entrusted with the task of conservation of wildlife – is advising the use of such barriers as best practice.
  6. Repellent methods: The best practice document also lists the use of ‘repellant methods’ which includes beating of drums, bursting crackers, use of drones etc. Such negative stimuli including electric, metal or cement fences are primarily based on conditioning fear in elephants or blocking and altering elephant movements. These are, at best  temporary fixes and may shift, aggravate or delay conflict. It has been scientifically established that the use of such crude methods drastically increases stress levels in elephants, making them more aggressive and causing more damage in conflict situations (Fernando et al., 2012; Vijayakrishnan et al., 2018). They fail to address the underlying causes of HEC. At the same time, we appreciate that farmers need to have some tools and methods to protect their crops from elephants such as use of lights, noise, chilli smoke etc. However, these must be site specific, and arrived at in consultation with local
    people.
  7. Habitat destruction and fragmentation: The report fails to address the root cause of increasing HEC which is the rapid diversion, destruction and fragmentation of forests, elephant reserves, corridors and even PAs for industry, mining, highways, railway lines and other such development activities. The situation is aggravated by forest encroachment cases that remain unsettled for decades, illegal land grants for cultivation that result in fragmentation of elephant habitat and corridors. Securing elephant habitat and corridors and providing them safe passage doesn’t get due weightage in the report. Elephants are set to lose a further 42 percent of their current habitat by the end of the century to human pressure and climate change which will further exacerbate conflict (Kanagaraj et al 2019). Without addressing the root cause of conflict i.e., habitat loss and fragmentation ‘band-aid, adhoc solutions’ will not be effective.

      1. Voluntary relocation and consolidating habitats: We appreciate that the guidelines have incorporated some of the best practices that are tested and proved to be mitigating human-elephant conflicts such as relocation of villages, use of CAMPA funds for legal acquisition of lands in elephant corridors, fire control, use of technology for early warning systems, encouraging alternate cropping pattern, crop damage compensation, exgratia payments etc. However, it is necessary that MoEFCC, states, other concerned agencies and departments increase investment in these efforts. We would particularly like to emphasise the importance of increasing investments from CAMPA and other sources towards voluntary relocation from PAs, critical wildlife habitats and corridors and land acquisition in elephant habitats and corridors.
      2. Legal protection: The most important step and the best practice required towards resolving human-elephant is providing legal protection to elephant reserves and corridors by way of expanding the current PA network, providing Eco-Sensitive Zone status to corridors and coming up with a policy document of land use for elephant habitat.
  8. Peaceful coexistence: A key failure of the guidelines is its glossing over best practises and strategies of how people and elephants can coexist peacefully. People in India have been peacefully sharing spaces with elephants and other animals like tigers and leopards. The use of crude and unscientific methods to tackle HEC aggravates conflict and risks eroding the traditional tolerance of people.

      1. Cautionary guidelines: The report must inculcate best practices for peaceful coexistence, particularly cautionary guidelines for people who live in elephant landscape. Under this, it may cover a comprehensive list of Dos & Don’ts for people to follow like stopping open defecation, storing food grains, salt in living quarters, not getting too close to elephants and irritating and harassing them.
      2. Participatory approach: The approach to human-elephant conflict needs to be participatory, with continual dialogue with the affected people, consulting with them, understanding their problems and what they need, and arriving at solutions.
      3. Ex Gratia payment: To support families and individuals who lose family members and suffer financial losses in HEC situations, it is necessary to adopt an empathetic approach and increase ex gratia payment amounts where required.
      4. Stakeholder involvement: The guideline missed out on an important opportunity to emphasize the role of various stakeholder groups in conflict mitigation. The current approach places an undue burden on the Forest Department which is already in charge of multiple aspects with several shortcomings. While they are the primary stakeholders and managers; elephant-human interface is necessarily a multi-stakeholder issue, requiring the active participation–as for example police for crowd/mob control, voluntary groups drawn from communities that alerts people to elephant movement.
  9. Electrocution: Harmful practices like hooking of live wire for poaching, and electrocution due to use of wire fencing against crop depredation find no place in the manual. This is a major omission, given the high level of mortality suffered due to these practices. For example, from 2016-2019, 314 elephants were killed due to electrocution (Agarwal, 2020).
  10. Empowering forest staff: The Project Elephant HEC guidelines of 2017 note “that management of HEC is a complex problem for forest officers and frontline staff, who have to deal with it on a regular basis.” Often they have to face the ire of the affected people who may have lost crops, suffered damage to property, or even human death or severe injury. There are many instances of forest staff being gheraoed, beaten, and humiliated across the country. Most forest staff who deal with HEC are poorly staffed, equipped, ill-trained and underpaid. This first line of defense for tackling HEC needs to be enhanced and empowered, yet this does not even find a mention in the guidelines.

      1. Anti-depredation squads: Moreover, the operations/working of such antidepredation squads are not systematic and there is a lack of Standard Operating Procedures. The activities of such squads tend to be chaotic, with participation of local mobs reducing their effectiveness. Their methods may include firing shots in the ground near the elephants to keep them moving towards the forests, poking elephants with iron spears, and use of mashals in spite of a Supreme Court order that forbids the use of such cruel methods. Such methods need to be discontinued. Such teams on the frontline of HEC need to be composed of  technically competent persons, who are sensitised and made aware of elephant ecology and behaviour. There is also an urgent need for coordination between divisions as well as the use of police and other enforcement agencies for mob control in conflict situations.
  11. Site-specific solutions: The guidelines have adopted a ‘one size fits all’ approach in many of its recommendations. It appears that such recommendations are made without insightful understanding that each landscape has its own drivers of human-elephant conflict at a micro level. It is important to address them by adopting a ‘site specific’ approach. Massive amounts of funds are spent annually on civil work even where they are not necessary and without even scientific assessment of its requirement and impact. For instance, the document suggests the development and maintenance of perennial waterholes. However, a protected area like Bhadra Tiger Reserve, for instance, has various perennial streams, and would not require these. Such interventions should only be taken up based on careful scientific assessments.

      1. Fodder plantations: Creation of fodder plantation is advised in the Best Practise document, but this also needs to be site-specific and cannot randomly be practiced across the country. Special caution needs to be taken regarding usage of big machinery such as JCBs and labour, as they cause unnecessary disturbance to movement of wildlife, survival of smaller mammals, birds, reptiles and adding to their stress, particularly during dry seasons. It is our earnest appeal that the MoEFCC consider rethinking these guidelines to incorporate the ethology and ecology of the elephant, and include proactive measures that local stakeholders can take so that there is both immediate and longterm resolution of HEC.

        The elephant is our national heritage animal, closely linked to our culture and revered by our citizens. If our guidelines can inculcate these values and are authored in compassion, they will truly help towards resolving this complex, vexing problem and ease the suffering of people and elephants.

Yours sincerely,

Prerna Singh Bindra
Former member-Standing Committee, National Board for Wildlife
Email: bindra.prerna@gmail.com

Biswajit Mohanty
Former member, National Board for Wildlife; Wildlife Protection Society of Orissa,
Email: kachhapa@gmail.com

Vaishali Rawat
Writer and wildlife conservationist
Email: vaishali.rawat@gmail.com

DV Girish
Wildlife Conservation Activist & Managing Trustee,
Bhadra Wildlife Conservation Trust, Chikkamagalauru
Email: girish422@gmail.com

Shreedev Hulikere
Wildlife Conservationist & Managing Trustee, WildCAT-C, Chikkamagalauru.
Email: shreedevhulikere@gmail.com

Mrunmayee Amarnath
Wildlife Conservationist, Chikkamagalauru
Email: mrunmayee.amarnath@gmail.com

Copy to:

  1. Minister of Environment, Forest and Climate Change
  2. Minister of State for Environment, Forest and Climate Change.
  3. Secretary (Environment, Forest & Climate Change)
  4. Director General of Forests and Special Secretary
  5. Additional Director General of Forest (Forest Conservation)
  6. Additional Director General of Forest (Wildlife)
  7. Director, Project Elephant
  8. Director, Wildlife Institute of India

[1] https://thewire.in/environment/elephants-india-athgarh-orissa
[2] https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1365-2664.13246

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