06/22/2017 14:02 EDT | Updated 09/24/2018 09:24 EDT

Creating A Culture Of Tolerance For Elephants

Two wild elephants were sentenced behind bars last month in Kerala. Their crime? They raided the crops cultivated on a land that once belonged to these animals. One of them has been deemed a murderer, as he allegedly killed five people, though there is little evidence to substantiate this claim.

These two majestic bull elephants will suffer the fate of another one who was captured back in November 2016. His name is Kallur Komban (KK). This poor elephant apparently was released three times back in the wild but he continued to raid crops.

Even after repeated "crimes", the forest department was planning to release KK yet another time after receiving significant pressure from animal welfare groups and activists. In fact, they had plotted a path to relocate KK into a forest called Perumbikulam near Palakkad District, far away from Wayanad where he was captured. The forest authorities had even tranquilized the terrified animal and loaded him into the truck.

Kallur Komban tranquilized and Dragged into Truck

However, they had to abort the mission immediately, after news about KK's relocation spread like wildfire. Terrified by the reputation KK had garnered, villagers blocked the roads, threatening to burn the truck that carried the innocent animal. There was so much hostility towards a sentient being that returned for fodder cultivated on a land that was stolen from him.

Here's the sad reality. Elephants are being driven out of the forests, as they are unable to find fodder due to drought and habitat destruction. Essentially, the biological carrying capacity (BCC), the number of species that forest ecosystems can accommodate is declining. This has been attributed to human activities that are exacerbating climate change and decimating forest ecosystems.

At the same time, humans are encroaching into the forests insidiously, occupying vast lands around the forest fringes where they cultivate bananas, jackfruits and other delicious meals that lure elephants.

Making matters worse is the exponential growth in human population, with India poised to be the most densely populated country in the world by 2020. In the coming years, we can certainly expect the human-wildlife conflict to intensify.

A unique measurement can aid in assessing tolerance for wildlife, and the data can be used to mitigate human-wildlife conflict. In 2015, a panel of 20 experts with versatile academic background from five continents released a study entitled International Consensus Principles for Ethical Wildlife Control. In it, they explored the cultural carrying capacity (CCC), aiming to measure the level of tolerance for wildlife.

The real issue is, there are no long-term human-wildlife mitigation strategies in Kerala. Worse yet, many people seem to be unaware of their primal bond with the intricate web of life that they are a part of and dependent on. Had this basic knowledge been imparted, it may have been easier to instill peaceful coexistence and decrease human-elephant conflicts.

But the truth is, even before establishing homes to rehabilitate, the "crop raiders" are captured and conditioned using torturous training methods until they surrender to the commands of their mahouts, and resign to their lives of confinement and slavery.

Nibha Namboodiri, a zoologist, and researcher in Kerala has been working on elephant related issues for the past couple of decades. She is launching a panel discussion to create long-term mitigation strategies in conflict zones. Two key parameters proposed by Namboodiri entail assessing the carrying capacity, and people's perceptions of elephants in conflict zones.

Perhaps this could offer deeper insights on the hostility towards elephants, and potentially help identify the CCC, which can then be expanded through ongoing awareness and education campaigns in order to foster greater tolerance for these supremely intelligent animals. Namboodiri says,

"We must categorically agree and decide, that we will not allow the elephant to suffer any more physical or mental trauma during the process of conditioning. We also need to be open enough to consider developing an alternate and new system of handling elephants which is more humane, as well as takes into consideration the safety of the mahouts and other human beings and their properties."

She proposes achieving this by compiling socio-economic and ecological data from conflict areas, empowering local organizations, and developing humane rehabilitation strategy for captured elephants.

Meantime the panel of experts I've mentioned above developed the first of its kind, international principles for ethical decision making in wildlife control. Through facilitated discussions, presentations and team work, they created seven key principles (mentioned below the image) grounded in this core value:

"Efforts to control wildlife should begin wherever possible by altering the human practices that cause human-wildlife conflict and by developing a culture of coexistence."

It is still not too late to release Kallur Komban who remains tethered in a tiny area, terrorized by human brutality. And perhaps these seven principles could guide future mitigations of human-elephant conflict in Kerala, and eventually implemented across India.

  1. Modify human practices when possible
  2. Justify the need for control
  3. Have clear and achievable outcome-based objectives
  4. Cause the least harm to animals
  5. Consider community values and scientific information
  6. Include long-term systematic management
  7. Base control on specifics of the situation

By expanding people's hearts and minds through awareness and education we can instill greater tolerance. This could in turn help expand the cultural carrying capacity, and create a peaceful coexistence between humans and elephants, and indeed all wildlife. Rather than labeling wildlife as vermin and pests, people will hopefully realize the intrinsic values of wildlife and our interdependence on them, and revere their presence on a planet - home to millions of species - not just humans.

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