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Cultural Impacts on Elephant Conflict Situations

August 23, 2018


As population growth continues to encroach on wild elephant populations, conflict situations are growing rapidly. The Nikkei Asian Review recently published an article entitled Man Versus Elephant on India’s Border with Nepal which describes an electric fence built along India’s border with Nepal to control elephant intruders. The elephant blockade illustrates the dilemma where population growth eradicates natural elephant habitats and forces them to invade villages thereby destroying crops, dwellings and killing people.

Both human and elephant casualties have been high in this ongoing conflict. Estimates are that one elephant is killed in India every four days by bullets, poison-tipped arrows, high tension electrical wires, speeding trucks and trains, or poisoned food. On the other side of the equation, the Indian government estimates that one person per day has died in an elephant attack. Therefore, the risk of loss of human lives is four times greater than that of elephants which puts India in that statistical stratosphere compared to any other country.


For many years, elephant herds crossed the Mechi River into Nepal from West Bengal, India as part of their seasonal migrations. However, as they damaged crops, the farmers fought back with gunfire prompting the Nepalese government to erect a 17.5-kilometer World Bank-funded fence in 2016. Therefore, the elephants return to India to raid rice and maize fields with the farmers fighting to save their crops.


Increasingly, the elephant lands are being denuded as villagers cut trees for firewood and attempt to expand the areas they can plant crops.


Accordingly, with a shrinking wild habitat, the elephants seek the individual 200 kilos or so of food a day a mature elephant needs to sustain itself wherever they can find it which means villager crops. The only option many villagers have is to switch their agricultural endeavors to crops such as turmeric and bay leaves which elephants find unappetizing. Nonetheless, schools are forced to close when the elephants come into the villages to protect the children.

There is no doubt that there is a prevailing desperation in densely populated India with a significant portion of the population literally fighting for survival. When that situation is extended to the rural countryside, crops are key to life and elephants represent a danger to the villagers very existence. Moreover, often there are unintended consequences such as the fence constructed between Nepal and India that blocked the wild elephant migration path. Nonetheless, there are cultural and social distinctions when the situation in India is compared to other Asian elephant countries, most notably Thailand.

Interestingly, a planter in the Soeng Ang district of northeastern Thailand took a more philosophical approach to the elephant invasion as wild elephants from nearby Thap Lan National Park feasted on his large sugar cane plantation at night. Secho Uthokyotha, Chairman of the Wild Elephants Conservation Group of Soeng San district, commented that the planter shown below in his destroyed sugar cane fields said that elephants are important to Thailand and could have the remainder of his crop. Moreover, elephants are spiritually connected to the predominantly Buddhist population of Thailand.


It is a bit amazing the reaction of a village farmer in Thailand to elephant crop destruction as compared to those in Nepal and India. Some 2,500 years ago, Siddhartha Gautama was born in what is now Nepal and founded Buddhism, a secular form of spirituality. Buddhist precepts were followed initially in India until Hinduism overcame it. Nonetheless, Buddhist practice in Thailand values compassion and restraint from killing any living creature which extends to elephants. Although there are apparent fissures developing in human/elephant relationships on the western side of Thailand, Indian elephants would certainly be advised to immigrate to Thailand, the “Land of Smiles.”




       
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