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Mainstream, VOL XLIX No 31, July 23, 2011

Man-Elephant Conflict: Animal Rights are Akin to Human Rights

Monday 25 July 2011, by Bharti Chhibber

Of late I was intrigued by two separate headings on the front page of a local newspaper. “Tusker strays into Mysore city, kills one, injures four”. Another one goes: “Two elephants seriously hurt after being hit by train in West Bengal’s Jalpaiguri district”. What are we talking about? It highlights ‘man-animal conflict’. Man-animal conflict occurs when animals damage agri-cultural crops and property, kill livestock or attack people because of degradation and fragmentation of wildlife habitats and the encroachment of humans into forest land.

Animal Rights calls for freedom of non-human living beings from exploitation and abuse by humans. Like human beings, animals also have right to life and emancipation from pain and suffering which may be caused during medical experiments, imprisonment in circuses, training of wild animals, and for fur production. Despite the proliferation of animal protection legislation in different countries, the situation for animals has deteriorated in the 20th century. This was in part because of the increase in the numbers used in animal research—300 in the UK in 1875, 19,084 in 1903, and 2.8 million in 2005 and an annual estimated range of 10 million to upwards of 100 million in the United States.

Human beings have certain rights not because they are citizens of any state but because they are human. Similarly animals too have rights as they are living beings. Article 51a of the Indian Constitution clearly mentions to protect and improve the natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers and wild life, and to have compassion for living creatures as one of our fundamental duties. It is ironical that we always demand our rights but conveniently forget that we have certain duties too.

Role of Elephants in Culture, Ecosystem and Tourism

IN Hindu culture, the elephant is worshipped from time immemorial as the incarnation of Lord Ganesha—remover of obstacles and representing success, education, wisdom, and wealth. Similarly, Sinhalese followers of Buddhism, believe that Buddha’s mother saw a white elephant in a dream just before his birth. In the capital city of Kandy, the greatest elephant in the country carries a casket containing Buddha’s tooth through the streets every year.

Elephants have also been playing a pivotal role in the tourism industry for a very long time. In Thailand, the remaining elephants are slowly re-trained and used by the mahouts in the major cities of Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Phuket as feeding of bananas and bamboo shoots to elephants is supposed to bring good luck. Likewise, in Sri Lanka, the elephant is beginning to play a key role in the tourism industry, attracting cultural tourists from around the world. Elephant Safari is popular among tourists in India. It takes one to the dense and rugged terrains, which are not easily reachable by jeeps or other vehicles.

Elephants also play a crucial role in the health of the ecosystems which they inhabit and sustain and benefit many other species. Their role within the ecosystem consists of path making, tree felling, soil aeration and seed dispersal, as well as creating and maintaining waterholes.

Man-Elephant Conflict

IN spite of being a highly revered and useful animal not much attention has been paid to conserve it till about a decade back. For example, in Thailand from a population of around 100,000 elephants at the turn of the 20th century, their numbers have now dwindled to an estimated 4000-5000 in recent years. This is mainly due to massive deforestation leaving them without a natural habitat. About twenty per cent of the world population lives in or near the existing habitat of the Asian elephant and this is further growing. In Vietnam there were an estimated 2000 elephants in 1990. By 1998 their population came down to 150.

India has the largest population of Asian elephants but their numbers have been falling due to habitat fragmentation, human encroachment, mining and dam construction. In a number of areas the government has set up corridors for the elephants to travel from one area to another. Unfortunately people regularly encroach into these corridors.

In Africa too, Zambia is accused of massive assault on its elephant population where between 1994-2004, 130 tonnes of ivory was being handled by a single syndicate on its route through Malawi to the Far East.

Laws Guaranteeing Animal Rights in Different Countries

IN the United States, there are three federal statutes governing animal welfare. These are the Animal Welfare Act, the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act and the Twenty-Eight Hour Act of 1877. In the EU, the European Convention for the Protection of Pet Animals governs the treatment of companion animals.

India was one of the first to have a law on the prevention of cruelty to animals—the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960. But we have only paid lip-service to the law over the years. The Animal Welfare Board of India was established in 1962. India has many laws which directly or indirectly deal with protection of animals. The need is for their proper implementation.

The Project Elephant started in 1992 and works for elephant protection in India. Similarly, the Monitoring of Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE) Programme started in South Asia in the year 2003. Its main aim is to provide information needed for elephant range States to make appropriate management and enforcement decisions, and to build institutional capacity within the range States for the long-term management of their elephant populations.

Recently India hosted the ‘Elephant-8 Ministerial Meet’ in New Delhi. The eight participating countries—Botswana, Congo, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Sri Lanka, Tanzania and Thailand—came together to secure the long term future of the elephant in all elephant range countries, through collaborative global action. In fact as the man-elephant conflict is not confined to India alone, it makes great sense that all affected states cooperate and coordinate their actions. Networking will help in learning from each other’s experiences and mitigation of this conflict.

Many international and national governmental agencies and non-governmental organisations are also contributing in preservation of wildlife. The Wildlife Trust of India and the World Land Trust have come together to open a corridor (Siju-Corridor) bridging the gap between two forested reserves in the Indo-Myanmar region. Projects like this are crucial in keeping elephants genetically diverse and increasing their population.

In Chamarajanagar district, Karnataka every year five to six elephants were dying of electrocution due to the frustration of farmers, who were losing their standing crop and not getting proper compensation. The Forest Department, in order to deal with the problem, adopted a three-pronged strategy—on the one hand it sensitised the staff on the issue and worked for quick clearance of compensation due to the farmers and on the other hand prioritised erection of solar fences.

We can also learn a lot from the experiences of other countries in mitigation of the human-elephant conflict. In Thailand, the National Elephant Institute was established in 2002 “to develop sustainable elephant conservation and to preserve the local traditions that involved the Thai elephant”. On the same lines, the Fauna & Flora International was invited to work in Cambodia in 1996. It led to the development of a 28-kilometre elephant corridor with an electrified game-proof fence that aims at providing a safe passageway for elephants in the northern part of Mount Kenya National Park. Likewise, translocation is one solution to the problem of the human-elephant conflict in Malaysia.

Policy Implications for India

In North-East India, where the terrain is very difficult, elephants and good mahouts will always be in demand for forest work, tourism, and as a means of transportation. The forest protection in this area is very important for the survival of India’s large population of wild elephants. Elephant corridors (narrow strips of land that allow elephants to move from one habitat patch to another) should be secured and patrolling of elephant corridors should be strengthened.

The World Wildlife Fund India in partnership with the Assam State Forest Department has implemented successfully in the North-East, on the north bank of the river Brahmaputra in the Sonitpur district of Assam, a plan where domesticated and trained elephants are hired to form anti-depredation squads, whose primary aim is to prevent damage and destruction by rogue tuskers straying into human habitation. This model can be successfully replicated in other places too.

Further, there is a need to raise awareness about the new mining or development projects. Community led guarding groups could be employed to mitigate the human-elephant conflict. The demarcation of the elephant reserve should aim at restoration of existing natural habitats, reducing human activities in surrounding areas and strengthening of measures for protection of elephants from poachers. Moreover, laws regarding the speed of trains while passing through the animal corridor should be strictly implemented. Creation of more water sources in different parts of the jungle would also help.

In the final, animals should be seen as co-inhabitants of this world and then only we humans shall appreciate their existence. Protection of wildlife laws needs to be stringently implemented. However, laws alone cannot bring about societal change. It is imperative to create awareness about the value of elephants and their habitats. To protect wildlife and conservation of forests, the common people have to pitch in. It is high time that we understand the gravity of the situation and act before we lose the already sparse population of tuskers in our race for urbanisation and modernisation.

Dr Bharti Chhibber teaches Political Science at the University of Delhi. She can be contacted at

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