Building human–elephant relationships based on science and local ownership: a long-lasting issue in the era of Sustainable Development Goals [Commentary on the study “There will be conflict – agricultural landscapes are prime, rather than marginal, habitats for Asian elephants”]


S. Terada, Animal Conservation

Date Published

Building human–elephant relationships based on science and local ownership: a long-lasting issue in the era of Sustainable Development Goals [Commentary on the study “There will be conflict – agricultural landscapes are prime, rather than marginal, habitats for Asian elephants”]
S. Terada
Animal Conservation
October 26, 2021

Human–wildlife conflict (HWC) has escalated in recent times, becoming a major challenge that threatens people’s livelihoods and the survival of wildlife species worldwide (Nyhus, 2016). HWC causes direct damage to local people sharing living space with wildlife, such as injuries, deaths, and damage to crops, livestock, and property. It also has indirect effects, such as economic loss, food insecurity, and costs associated with preventing HWC-related damage, thereby affecting human livelihoods and well-being (Dickman, 2010; Nyhus, 2016). Consequently, the costs of coexistence with wildlife can undermine the motivation of the local people to conserve the species and their habitats, thus negatively impacting conservation outcomes (Cooney et al., 2017). Solving HWC requires establishing sustainable socio-ecological systems that enhance both the local people’s well-being and wildlife conservation.

Human–elephant conflict (HEC) is a common, serious challenge for elephant conservation and local development in elephant range countries of Asia and Africa (Shaffer et al., 2019). In many areas, habitat loss and fragmentation, caused by human land-use changes, threaten the survival of elephant populations, increasing the frequency of HEC (Shaffer et al., 2019). Furthermore, climate change can increase conflicts by limiting the availability of resources, such as water and food (Bush et al., 2020). Given space and resource limitations, understanding habitat use by elephants that reflects their resource requirements is essential for designing landscapes that balance the needs of both humans and elephants.

Using long-term population tracking data and HEC records accumulated by management authorities, de la Torre et al. (2021) spatially illustrated habitat suitability and the occurrence of HECs by Asian elephants (Elephas maximus), for both sexes, in Peninsular Malaysia. Those Asian elephants preferred areas around plantations with moderately disturbed vegetation, and HEC mainly occurred in these areas as opposed to those that elephants use occasionally. de la Torre et al. (2021) also found variation between the sexes in their use of areas with high human disturbance (such as open areas and areas close to human settlements), suggesting that this may be a key of the sexual differences in the HEC pattern in the study area, and differences in the degree of female involvement in causing damage to crops among countries with different agricultural landscapes.

Furthermore, de la Torre et al. (2021) highlighted problems with translocation based on habitat suitability model and positive correlation between the space elephants use and HEC incidents. They indicate that even if people translocate some individuals to primary forests, based only on the assumption that elephants generally live in primary forests, these individuals may be attracted to human-disturbed vegetation in the new area, depending on the landscape (de la Torre et al. 2021). Thus, whilst appearing non-lethal and ‘humane’, translocation may not solve HEC fundamentally, and may even become an ‘inhumane’ measure by creating risks to people in other areas.

de la Torre et al. (2021) showed the importance of considering preventive and mitigation measures for HEC at the landscape level combining various measures, such as land-use planning and small-scale exclusionary measures. Studies on African elephants (Loxodonta africana) have also indicated limited effectiveness in removing problematic individuals, since other individuals tend to replace them (Nyhus, 2016). One of the popular measures related to land use is fencing around fields and/or protected areas. Although this method poses the risk of habitat fragmentation for elephants, and may amass unfeasible maintenance costs, accumulated evidence suggests that fences can be a cost-effective measure if strategically installed considering these factors (Di Minin et al., 2021). Overall, it is necessary to understand the advantages and disadvantages of each countermeasure and then adaptively implement them, combining multiple measures as necessary, based on the local conditions.

To understand the local conditions appropriately, it is necessary to promote and integrate various HEC-related studies on social, economic, and political realities (Dickman, 2010; Nyhus, 2016; Shaffer et al., 2019). For example, contrary to the popular narrative that habitat destruction due to human population growth and agricultural land expansion increases HEC, a negative spiral between human-population decline and crop damage by elephants is observed in some rural areas in Central Africa (Terada et al., 2021). This is rather similar to the situation of HWC in depopulated rural areas in some developed countries, such as Japan (Tsunoda & Enari, 2020). Given the complexity, to better understand the underlying factors of HEC, communication between scientists, practitioners, and residents is essential, as suggested by de la Torre et al. (2021). This will contribute, not only to the application of research findings, but also to setting further research questions and approaches through the identification of the knowledge gap.

Another complexity related to HEC is the global discussion on elephant conservation that strongly influences the related policies in elephant range countries, often without respecting local ownership. For example, the voices of the impacted countries and the local people, who bear the cost of living with elephants and other wildlife, are not always respected in the global and/or political discussions on such issues as the validity of culling for population management, trophy hunting, and international trade in elephants or ivory for conservation funding (Biggs et al., 2017; Cassidy & Salerno, 2020). This problem needs more attention, not only for ethical reasons but also for the effectiveness of conservation strategies at the local level (Cooney et al., 2017; Cassidy & Salerno, 2020). This situation persists, even today when the Sustainable Development Goals emphasize the integration of environmental, economic, and social dimensions and the need to ‘leave no one behind’.

Mitigation of HEC requires a holistic approach with a wide range of multifaceted and interdisciplinary knowledge. Therefore, scientists should be aware of the risk of non-malicious knowledge gaps and misconceptions that can lead to inappropriate recommendations for management. Moreover, various stakeholders across disciplines, sectors, and societal positions need to share knowledge, and then identify the underlying causes of the vulnerability of elephant populations and local communities, and design sustainable socio-ecological systems for human-elephant coexistence based on local peoples’ ownership (Dickman, 2010; Cassidy & Salerno, 2020; Terada et al., 2021). In such avenues, ecological research, such as that by de la Torre et al. (2021), will play an important role, especially in identifying spatiotemporal environmental changes and elephants’ responses to them at the landscape level.