Learning from the Kattunayakan community: How to live with elephants? – Tamil Nadu

Local celebrity ‘CMK1’ and his escort on a road in India’s Gudalur region
The Guardian >>
Photograph: Shola Trust

Elephant conservation: Can elephants and humans live together?

Berserk beasts, trashed crops, vengeful villagers: tales of ‘conflict’ come thick and fast as humans and elephants are forced into closer contact. But does it have to be war? Across Asia and Africa, there are hints of how we might live in peace | To view more photos and read the full article, click here >>

I grew up in a small town called Gudalur in the Nilgiri Hills, among elephants and stories about them. Elephants always fascinated me, and I’m in the middle of a PhD, trying to better understand how people and elephants share space. It’s an interest that almost grew out of necessity. The Gudalur region is about 500 square kilometres, or about one third the size of London, covered mostly by tea and coffee plantations and patches of forests. It’s home to a quarter of a million people, about 150 elephants and a host of other wild animals ranging from bears and tigers to flycatchers and martens. Every year, about a dozen people get killed in accidental encounters with elephants […]

Elephants are also the only other species known to sometimes have rituals around death. Some years ago, I saw an accident ahead of me while driving through a forest in south India. Two young boys on a motorbike had come too close to an elephant, and one had been crushed to death by the scared or angry animal. What struck me was how agitated and upset the elephant seemed. It stood over the body, almost being protective, and was covering it with grasses, branches and mud – as if attempting a burial. It’s not just intelligence; there is also empathy. All of this makes it clear that elephants are capable of collectively thinking and acting in ways that we are not close to fully understanding. […]

If a person is highly tolerant of animals and thinks it natural that some of their crops will be eaten by elephants, does that count as conflict or not? This is very evident in the Gudalur area, with newer arrivals finding it a lot harder to live with elephants than the indigenous people. The Kattunayakans, for example, a traditional hunter-gatherer tribe, would never plant a cash crop like bananas, since “elephants would eat it, of course”. They think it’s perfectly natural for elephants to come through their land and eat whatever they find. But for many of the newer immigrants into the region this is completely unacceptable, and they think elephants are a huge problem.

Such nuances are frequently lost on biologists, conservationists and the media. They count all interactions as conflict, and almost create conflict where there is none. […]

The quest to find a universal “solution” to HEC continues, but the real answer may be to accept that there is no universal solution. Each may work in one place, and fail in another, or work for some time, then fail at a later date. The problem is better understood as an interface between people and elephants, with both sides constantly learning and innovating. It’s a relationship that will be defined by improvisation by both humans and elephants. We need thousands of different solutions all over the world, continuously changing and evolving.

Tarsh Thekaekara is a PhD student at the Open University and a researcher at the Shola Trust.
This piece is part of a year-long series on Elephant Conservation – email us at [email protected]

Source: “Can elephants and humans live together?” by Tarsh Thekaekara, The Guardian, Monday 6 March 2017
URL: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/mar/06/can-elephants-and-humans-live-together
Date Visited: 22 December 2021

Continuing reports of human deaths due to man-animal conflict in the Nilgiris have caused considerable angst for wildlife activists as well as the public in the hills. Thirty-six people were killed by wild animals in the Nilgiris in 2015-16. Forest officials attribute it to the change in land use pattern and crop cultivation close to reserve forest areas. Besides, despite being cautioned, local people mindlessly venture into forest lands. […]

Attracted by banana, sugarcane, paddy and coconut cultivations in the fringe areas of forest, elephants intrude into the areas looking for fodder and in the process destroy the fields also. […]
In association with an NGO, Shola Trust, the forest department has been conducting a study in the Gudalur forest division on how the conflicts could be brought down. […]

“It is a matter of grave concern that 18 human deaths were reported in a year in the Nilgiris due to man-animal conflict. The situation should be thoroughly analysed. Most of the tribal communities live inside forest areas. But they don’t seem to fall prey to animals as they know how to live in harmony in the wild. It is the people who live in the fringe areas who fall prey due to lack of awareness.” […]

Source: “Land use pattern need to be changed to resolve man-animal conflicts”, Times of India, March 5, 2017
URL: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/coimbatore/land-use-pattern-need-to-be-changed-to-resolve-man-animal-conflicts/articleshow/57471535.cms
Date Visited: 22 December 2021

“India has arguably had the technology to wipe out most animals for centuries, but more that half of the world tigers and two-thirds of the worlds Asian Elephants continue to live alongside people, themselves packed in at about 450 in every square kilometre. Should the Indian conservation ethos build on this long religious and cultural ‘tolerance’ to wildlife or should we completely ignore it and copy everyone else in the world?”

Tarsh Thekaekara in “The Human Elephant (Wildlife) Relationship”, May 2014 www.thesholatrust.org/elephants/

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Learn more: Paniya | Kattunayaka | Mullukurumba | Bettakurumba

See also

Accordweb.in | Accord | Articles by co-founder Mari Marcel Thekaekara | Shola Trust

Atree.org | Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology & the Environment (posts)

Climate change | Audio | The Climate Question (BBC Podcast)

Environmental history and what makes for a civilization – Romila Thapar

Equations blog (Equitable Tourism Options)

Indigenous knowledge systems

Information provided by Indian government agencies and other organizations (FAQ)

Nature and wildlife | Crocodile | Elephant | Tiger | Mangrove forest | Trees

PARI’s tales from tiger territory | People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI)

United Nations on climate change


What is the Forest Rights Act about? 

Who is a forest dweller under this law, and who gets rights?