By Vijaysree Venkatraman
Many who grew up in southern India will fondly recall temple elephants with their tinkling neck-bells. As children, we didn’t notice the shackles on their legs. Elephants have iconic status in India, they were used for warfare, construction and transportation, apart from pageantry. They are still used in religious celebrations: here is an excellent story about celebrity elephants. And a news item about an 1500 lb.+ golden ornament which a chosen elephant carries during Mysore’s biggest annual festival.
Elephants are protected in India; their habitats are not. So the giant mammals are forced to intrude into plantations and farmland. There are bound to be human-elephant conflicts in a developing country with a huge population. Currently, a state-sponsored capture of an elephant herd is underway. This is the first “khedda” or stockading of the elephant in the 21st century. They’ll be using tranquilizer guns to capture the elephants but that may be the only modern thing about it. No clever technological solutions to reduce human-elephant conflicts. No thoughts/ideas about how to control the elephant population in the sub-continent. Nothing visionary.Elephant upkeep is costly and the herd will be put to work eventually. Kids growing up in southern India will also grow up thinking it is perfectly normal to have “tamed” wildlife in our midst.
But it is not only these gentle giants who are to be pitied. Ajay Desai, co-chair of the Asian Elephant Specialists Group, tells me about a woman affected by the hungry herds: “She was a widow, owned half an acre of land (paddy field), cultivating the land became increasingly difficult due to elephants. Eventually due to lack of money, her two sons (uneducated, 16 and 14 years old) went off to Bangalore and she has not heard from them since. She has no clue what has happened to them but hopes they are well and will come back someday; she has no means of tracing them. Her neighbor plowed her field for her and she took a loan for seeds and planted paddy the year the boys left.
Elephants damaged the crop completely. The next year it was the same story and the year I met her, the field was fallow and so were a number of other fields, she said no one would give her loans for seeds and her neighbor too had stopped planting – they cannot guard their crops for fear of elephants attacking them. She was trying to eke out a living doing manual labor… What was I to tell or do other than promise her that I’d help try and solve the elephant problem...that was way back in 2006!”
References if you’d like to read more about Human-Elephant Conflicts in India.