How to make the elephant want to leave the room

ResearchBlogging.orgWhen you pack over a billion people into a relatively small subcontinent containing several globally important biodiversity hotspots, and many species of large, fierce, charismatic megafauna, the challenges of conserving all that biodiversity while meeting human needs are not simple. You find that solutions invented in other places, in simpler contexts, seldom work. Some simple seeming problems require complex solutions while other seemingly intractable problems may be solved in surprisingly simple ways. There are also, of course, other problems, larger political / social / economic ones, like managing global warming, that we are afraid to address even in the face of disaster, and find ourselves tiptoeing around as long as possible, the proverbial elephant in the room.

Landscape that dwarfs elephants“, image by Arati Rao

Sometimes though, the elephant in your metaphorical living room may be an actual real live Asian Elephant in the middle of a human landscape. Quite possibly rampaging through some farmer’s crop, high on musth gland secretions. Or camped out in the middle of that montane estate from which you get your morning cup of tea, its dark bulk rising “like a large boulder above the low tea bushes” as my friend Janaki Lenin described in an astonishing article in The Hindu a couple of days ago.

A crop-raiding elephant is most likely a solitary male, though, possibly in musth, but out in the open playing a high risk strategy to try and maximize his gain in that ancient evolutionary game of reproductive fitness. The risk of running around in the middle of human habitation is obvious, for humans are the most dangerous animals on the planet, liable to kill you for a variety of reasons. And elephants, with their social smarts, and their long memories, are particularly qualified to learn about these risks. Indeed, the females, in social groups with their sisters and their young ones, do tend to stay away from humans as much as possible.

Why then do the males stray into those crop fields, and tea estates, the occasional country distillery, and even suburbia, taking on these enormous risks? Because their reproductive success depends on access to females, for which they must compete with other males, and that contest usually goes to the biggest male in the ‘hood. So any young male elephant must try to become as big as possible to ensure his evolutionary fitness, for such are the pressures of sexual selection in this species. And for that, the males must eat. A lot.

When your natural habitat is fragmented, though, converted by humans for other purposes, and your traditional migratory pathways are cut off, where can a young male find enough food to grow big and strong? Not within the small “natural” areas humans have supposedly “protected” for them, especially when such areas are small and shrinking.

But hello, what have the humans done with the former elephant habitat? Why, they’ve converted them, from productive natural diverse forests and grasslands into even more productive monoculture grasslands (and other crops)! And the ‘grass’ is even sweeter and richer in energy ever since the clever humans figured out agriculture! What’s more, the humans then also harvest the best parts of the plants and pile it up in convenient storehouses in their villages and towns. So, if you are willing to take the risk, maybe even use your bulk to some advantage against the puny humans—as long as they don’t come back at you with guns and ammo—you have a potentially very high payoff from feeding in those crop fields and village barns.

This high-risk strategy can work—has worked—especially in the south Asian context because the human societies there have developed religious cultural traditions of worshipping elephants (and other animals) and generally leaving them alone, even if they are raiding precious crops. Some of these odd humans have been willing to make that offering to the elephant gods, and accept even the occasional human sacrifice as a routine cost of farming in elephant country. As the human population has grown, however, their patience with wildlife has also worn thin, and so we have one of the biggest challenges for wildlife conservationists: managing this recurring human-elephant conflict.

Given the cultural status of elephants, and their conservation status as an endangered species, managing these “rogue” crop-raiding elephants is a huge headache. One strategy commonly used is to simply capture the offending elephants, one at a time, and relocate them to where we think is suitable habitat for them. A new paper in PLoS One this week presents the first comprehensive study of this strategy to reduce human elephant conflict (HEC). Fernando and colleagues tracked a dozen such relocated elephants (some relocated more than once) using GPS-fitted radio-collars that could be monitored via satellite. What they found is not encouraging: 

All translocated elephants were released into national parks. Two were killed within the parks where they were released, while all the others left those parks. Translocated elephants showed variable responses: “homers” returned to the capture site, “wanderers” ranged widely, and “settlers” established home ranges in new areas soon after release. Translocation caused wider propagation and intensification of HEC, and increased elephant mortality. We conclude that translocation defeats both HEC mitigation and elephant conservation goals.

So basically, you create more problems than you solve by trying to relocate elephants. First, it is not easy to move the elephants far enough away (at least in Sri Lanka where the study was conducted) to keep them from trying to get back to their original home range. Second, you don’t simply solve the conflict, you merely displace it to another location, often escalating it to the point that the elephant ends up getting killed. It seems that more often than not, the poor elephants will, ultimately, always be at the losing end of that game. So the authors recommend abandoning the relocation strategy, and conclude that:

In the long term, attention needs to be shifted towards preventing the genesis of ‘problem-elephants’. Such a strategy requires eliminating elephant management and crop protection methods that promote elephant aggression and increase HEC, and implementing land-use plans that minimize crop raiding.

Meanwhile, Janaki, in her article published on the same day as the PLoS One paper, raises a different, intriguing possibility, based on another aspect of human relationships with elephants: domestication. While humans have been taming the landscape and transforming elephant habitats into farms for our own use, a handful of communities in India have also mastered the art of domesticating the elephants and using them for a variety of purposes, mostly as labor, but also as cultural and religious icons.

Janaki’s tale revolves around one particular attempt to use domestic elephant males (kumkis) to physically drive a “rogue” elephant out of a tea estate, and back into more suitable habitat. This elephant drive though, turned out to be a far less organized and much more chaotic affair than she had imagined. You really have to read her article all the way to its remarkable punchline though, to consider the possibility I am contemplating.

Go read it now before I spoil it for you in the next paragraph!

Janaki writes about trying to figure out how the drive was organized, and who called the plays (so to speak) in deciding when and how the kumkis charge and herd the wild elephant, and in what direction. What she discovered in trying to work out the chain of command is truly remarkable. First she was told that Forest Department Officials decide on the path for the drive. The higher officers appeared to pass the buck on to the forest guards on foot patrol. The guards weren’t organized enough to be in charge either, so then she was told it was the mahouts riding the kumkis who were really calling the shots. But then, the big kumki in that operation had a mind of his own, and they had to fire shots in the air to get him under control. So who really runs the drive?

The clash of the titans. Chasing the interloper. Photo: Janaki Lenin, in The Hindu

As the responsibility of the drive moved down the hierarchy, I couldn’t be sure if it indeed stopped with the mahouts. But there was no one else below them.

A couple of days later, I met a senior official of the first organisation. He said, “You know an amazing thing about these elephant drives: It’s not people who make the decisions; it’s the kumkis.

They hear and understand the infrasound communications between the wild elephants. And the kumkis decide the best course of action.”

Astonishing as it may seem, it actually makes sense if you think about the social lives of elephants a bit. Especially what we are learning in recent years about the long-distance communication networks they appear to maintain using infrasound. At elephant camps in various forests in India, domestic elephants are often left alone at night to wander the woods when they are not working—albeit with a heavy chain they must drag around so their mahouts can find them in the morning. It is common for these domestic elephants to go consort with wild ones, and even make babies with them! So it may well be that the kumki in Janaki’s tale actually knew the “rogue” wild elephant personally, and decided to take aggressive tactics on his own. Which may be why it makes sense to let the kumkis take the lead in these elephant drives.

This raises a remarkable possibility that may be beyond the imagination of mainstream wildlife managers and conservationists, especially in the western countries wedded to the metaphor of control over nature. Let the elephants, the domestic ones, decide how to herd the wild ones to avoid conflicts with humans! That, of course, in addition to changing our crop protection and land use strategies in ways that avoid conflict in the first place, as recommended by Fernando and colleagues in PLoS One. Thus may we build a real partnership with the elephants instead of ongoing conflict. For the domestic elephant knows humans better than the wild one, and may be best placed to properly communicate the real risk-assessment in these increasingly fraught HEC situations.

It may seem ironic, sad even, that we turn domestic elephants against their own kind, use them to control their wild cousins. Just as we have used them in forestry operations to cut down the trees from their own former habitats. It need not be so, however, if we actually pay closer attention to elephant behavior, both wild and domestic, and establish better communication with them so we can actually work together as partners in this. We manage our farms and people to reduce temptation for the wild males, while the kumkis help us keep them in line, away from people. 

Most of India’s forests are gone, and forestry operations no longer really rely on elephants to haul logs. Their other uses, as beasts of burden and war making, are equally obsolete. Apart from offering rides to tourists, the future prospects for these forest-camp elephants seem dim. Why not give them a new purpose, as intermediaries between humans and their wild cousins, helping us negotiate a dynamic truce, if not a lasting peace?

For our part, we must abandon our dominant metaphor of control (even couched as stewardship) over nature.



Fernando, P., Leimgruber, P., Prasad, T., & Pastorini, J. (2012). Problem-Elephant Translocation: Translocating the Problem and the Elephant? PLoS ONE, 7 (12) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0050917

One thought on “How to make the elephant want to leave the room

  1. Kaberi

    I dont know how we can pull it off in a densely populated country like India where we do not have so much agricultural land to spare for nonhuman animals! But a possible adaptive management solution by forest department and the farmers in the fringes of the forests could be manage some of the land to grow crop for elephants to feed. Forest department can buy or lease the ag lands from the current owners.

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