Can elephants and humans live together?


Trash Thekaekara, The Guardian 

Date Published

See link for photos. 

While I was working on this article, two people were killed by wild elephants near my home in south India. Mary Leena, a middle-aged woman, was rushing to church for an early morning service. At an intersection, she came face to face with a huge male elephant as it turned the corner. Both panicked; the elephant swung his trunk out, and she was thrown into a wall. She was rushed to the hospital, but died on the way.

Three weeks later, a lorry driver on a national highway heard someone calling for help. He found an old lady in the tea bushes, badly injured. She was walking along the road, encountered wild elephants, and was thrown into the bushes. She too died shortly after.

This is the dark side of the otherwise wonderful world of wild elephants. One of the world’s most charismatic mammals can also be one of the most dangerous. And humans are finding it harder and harder to keep out of its way.

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.


There are now more than 7 billion humans on Earth, with almost 10 billion expected by 2050. Most of us want to save wildlife, but we have less and less space to do so, and our growth and ever-increasing consumption inevitably put us into contact with wild animals. The concept of “human-wildlife conflict” is becoming central to conservation work.

This is of course particularly pronounced for the world’s largest land mammal. Elephants are far-ranging animals, and their requirements for food and water are tremendous – up to 300kg of vegetable matter and 200 litres of water every day. They find human agriculture an attractive food source, competing with people in areas where they overlap. They do not directly prey on livestock (or people) like the big cats, but the overall impact they have on humans is much greater – they cause extensive damage to crops and property, they compete with livestock for food and water, and they sometimes kill people in accidental encounters. There are also “hidden dimensions of conflict”, with people unable to lead normal lives because of the elephants around them. Indigenous children in the Gudalur region, for instance, often can’t go to school because there are elephants blocking the path. The people who suffer most from contact with elephants are invariably those who already lead strained and tenuous lives.

Elephants, meanwhile, are being forced out of their natural surroundings by large agribusinesses converting forests to farmland. In Asia particularly, “linear infrastructure” such as roads and highways cuts up their habitat and makes long-range movement more and more challenging. Elephants are run down by trains and electrocuted by illegal fences and low-hanging wires. On top of these accidental hardships, they are deliberately slaughtered for their tusks, or in retaliation for damage to crops and property.

The biggest cause of human-elephant conflict (HEC), however, is that elephants simply cannot live within the small fenced-off areas that we call the “protected area network”. Globally, only around 20% of their range is formally protected, and their future hinges on their ability to continue to share space with people – to be tolerated by individuals and communities.

Elephants range through 50 countries in Asia and Africa. Traditionally two species have been recognised – the Asian (Elephas maximus) and African (Loxodonta africana), although the African elephant is now subdivided into the savanna and forest elephant (Loxodonta africana cyclotis). While both species have similar requirements for food and water, the contexts differ vastly, particularly with respect to interactions with humans. Simply put, Asian elephants share their territory with a lot more people. Southern Africa, for example, with a relatively well managed elephant population, has about 25 humans per square kilometre. In south Asia the figure is closer to 350 people per square kilometre. HEC is therefore clearly a much bigger problem in Asia than Africa. That said, human population growth rates are higher in Africa, and there is a much more rapid agricultural expansion. Poaching for ivory is a big conservation challenge now, but HEC could worsen in the years to come.

HEC also manifests itself in very different ways across the two continents. Crop damage and accidental human death are the biggest concerns in Asia, while competition among elephants and livestock over resources (grazing areas and key water sources) is often a source of conflict in Africa. In terms of sheer numbers and range, the African species is almost an order of magnitude greater than the Asian – over 500,000 elephants spread across 2 million square kilometres versus about 50,000 spread across half a million square kilometres.

India, almost paradoxically, has a very high human density of about 400 people per square kilometre and is also home to two thirds of the world’s Asian elephants. As societies in the global north developed, they wiped out the large mammals that competed with them. But this has not happened in India, perhaps on account on Hinduism and strong religious attachments to a host of animals. Elephant gods feature prominently in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism across Asia, as Ganesha, Ganapati, Airavata or Vinayaka in India, Erawan in Thailand, and Kangiten in Japan, all broadly thought of as the “remover of obstacles”. As the Indian government’s elephant taskforce notes (pdf), it is “not the immediate extinction as much as attrition of living spaces and the tense conditions of the human-elephant encounter on the ground that require redress”.

As well as religion, the community’s wider culture plays a part. Developed western societies, including elite communities in the global south, largely ascribe to the Judeo-Christian worldview, where “man” is at the pinnacle of creation, and able to dominate nature. Saving wildlife is an act of benevolence, compassion or duty. Indigenous communities see themselves more as a part of nature, and think of various plants, animals, inanimate object and even natural phenomena as “more than human” people with whom they are able to interact and communicate. Individual animals can be eaten for food so long as there is respect, and individual animals are capable of wrongdoing, and liable to be punished – but animals in general have as much right to exist as humans.

This is not universal, however: reports from Africa suggest a lot more animosity and fear towards elephants among the farmers and local communities who share space with them, and none of the cultural reverence. “Rogue elephants” that kill people are often put down by the governments in many African nations – something that almost never happens in Asia.


To have any hope of managing human-elephant interactions, we need to understand what makes elephants tick. Let’s start with their idea of home. Through the year, a herd of elephants may move over a very large area in search of food and water – sometimes more than 1,000 square kilometres. (There may also be a “cultural” element to these journeys, with generation after generation used to making them.) The “home ranges” are invariably larger than the protected area in which elephants are supposed to live, and the movement between wildlife parks makes interactions with people almost inevitable.

But newer research is also showing that in Sri Lanka, where the government has created more permanent water bodies for people, elephants are also using these, and their ranges have shrunk, sometimes to less than 100 square kilometres. This is also happening in the region where I work – when there is enough food and water all through the year, elephants tend to become much more sedentary. It will be important to study this aspect of elephant biology in years to come, particularly given climate and other human-induced changes.

Most elephants continue to move across vast areas, however, and allowing for this is critical. Governments and NGOs increasingly favour the idea of “corridors”, which make it easier for elephants to move between isolated habitats. In theory, these operate on two levels. First, they assist the regular movement of elephants within their range, despite manmade obstacles such as busy roads and railway lines, newly enlarged villages and even national borders. There may be hundreds or thousands of such points all over the elephants’ range, each needing very site-specific interventions to mitigate the problem. Corridors can also preserve genetic connectedness between two populations of elephants, by allowing the occasional individual to get across to mate.

Contrary to popular belief, however, corridors are not a silver bullet that will solve all the problems of HEC. Generally, corridors are understood as narrow strips of forest that connect two bigger elephant habitats, on the notion that maintaining these passages will ensure peaceful movement. That’s not how elephants travel, however, and the assumption that elephants will stick to the forested strip is simplistic. What people leave as forest could be sparse hill slopes, and the elephants may well prefer to move through farmlands and feed on succulent crops as they go.

This bring us to another inconvenient truth: elephants are inherently predisposed to eating crops. In contiguous forests, they spend 12-18 hours a day feeding on a range of grasses, shrubs and leaves. But when they have settlements and agriculture around them, they quickly learn that they can meet their needs in a few hours among the crops.

This is particularly true of males. Both African and Asian elephants live in female-led herds, with the males generally leaving when they reach puberty. Young bulls usually form loose bonds with older males, or remain solitary, and tend to crop-raid to a greater extent. Having to fend only for themselves, they can afford to be more reckless in their interactions with humans.

Reckless, perhaps, but definitely not stupid. Elephant brains are similar to humans’ in terms of structure and complexity, with as many neurons. They are able to use tools, learn quickly and cooperate in complex tasks. They are one of the few animals that are self-aware and recognise themselves in mirrors. They are even able to do basic arithmetic beyond what any other non-human species are capable of. They live for as long as humans, and, being highly social, they learn from each other.

They have been observed to be altruistic, even to humans. There is a story of a tusker in central India that smashed down a house, trapping a screaming baby. He came back and carefully moved all the rubble away to free the infant.

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.

Mind you, even elephants may find other elephants confusing. Biologists tend to generalise for the entire species, assuming all their decisions are made based on their need for food and water, and to increase evolutionary fitness. This is of course an important factor, but it’s not the whole picture. Each elephant is a thinking individual, and they are often very different from each other.

This is the focus of my current work. In the landscape in which I work, in south India, a large tuskless male known as CMK1 or “Naadodi Ganesan”, “the village loafer Ganesan”, spends all his time around people and displays behaviour that is rather different from his fellow elephants. He almost never becomes agitated or attacks – we’ve even seen children herding him along as they do cattle. He walks along main roads, and often gets an official escort from the police and forest departments, largely to keep excited people away from him. Other elephants in the same region, interacting with the same people, are very shy and stay away from settlements. And there is a third type that is often seen near habitations, but is highly agitated around people. Some of these elephants have been responsible for a majority of human deaths. Understanding this individuality is of particular importance in tackling HEC.


Humans, too, are anything but uniform. This is an area that has received very little attention in the scientific literature on HEC. Most research is done by biologists, whose research often excludes the human dimension. Yet agriculturalists, for example, clearly have a lot more to lose on account of elephants than pastoralists and herders, and hunter-gatherers perhaps even less.

While most of the early research on HEC focused on quantifying the economic and other losses that people suffered, much of the newer work argues that what is more important is perceived loss. 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.


So why is human-elephant conflict now seen as such a big problem? Elephants have always moved over large distances, and arguably had some negative impact on the people they interact with. There is no hard data to show that conflict is sharply on the rise; this is something that is inferred more from the increasing number of media reports and scientific publications about “conflict”. As the world becomes more connected, humans may also be becoming less tolerant as they hear more about damage caused by elephants. This is very evident in south India where I work – even among people living alongside elephants, perceptions are often formed more from media reports than from their own interaction with the animals.

As for what’s causing any rise in HEC, opinion seems to be split between two camps. The majority view, particularly in the western and English-language media, is from the elephant’s perspective: we humans are continually destroying forests across the world and encroaching into the elephants’ habitat, so we shouldn’t be surprised when elephants eat crops or injure people. This is of course true. But a contrary, minority view also exists – that with strong laws protecting elephants, their numbers are increasing in some areas, and they are venturing into human habitation like never before, causing unbearable losses to local communities. This too is true, and a heated debate continues. We are undoubtedly continuing to destroy vast tracts of elephant forests around the world, but many well-managed populations are flourishing. The savannah elephant populations in southern Africa, in particular, have recovered considerably in the last few decades thanks to concerted conservation efforts.

As far as elephant numbers are concerned, surprising as it seems, the global population figures published by the International Union for Conservation of Nature are based on vague guesswork and crude estimates. The logistics of coordinating elephant surveys across 50 nations are beyond any international conservation organisation. Countries therefore conduct their surveys independently, at different times and using slightly different methods, making it impossible to collate the numbers accurately. For Asian elephants, in both India and Sri Lanka, official numbers point to an increasing population, but the counting methods have evolved over the years, making older estimates less accurate. For African elephants, it’s still more complicated, since both the area to be surveyed and the numbers are much greater.

The destruction of forests is less debatable, and almost all the data points to a drastic decline in the last few decades, with the trends sadly continuing, particularly in central Africa and south-east Asia. In addition to the actual destruction of forests, there is degradation. Lantana camara, for example, is one of the world’s top 10 invasive plants. Native to the central and southern Americas, it’s a thick shrub that out-competes everything else in a forest and is a huge problem across almost all of the tropics. Its leaves contain toxins, and cannot be eaten by herbivores. We haven’t ascertained how much of the forests it has taken over, but a significant portion may in reality be unpalatable weeds and effectively unusable from an elephant’s perspective.


What is being done to reduce HEC? Barriers such as elephant-proof trenches and electric fences are the most popular options across Africa and Asia. But they are very expensive – a key constraint for developing countries. More importantly, elephants usually manage to get across them in a short while. In areas that get high rain, trenches fill up with eroded soil after the first monsoon. Elephants have also been known to stamp at the edges and push mud into the trenches in order to fill and cross them. They have a host of ways to defeat fences; the favourite is to step on posts and push them down, or to push trees or dead wood into a fence and knock it over. They also learn that their tusks don’t conduct electricity, and use them to snap the wires. An experiment in Kenya tried trimming tusks to stop this behaviour, but the de-tusked elephants went on to break 20 fences in five days.

Elsewhere, humans sometimes do the elephants’ work for them, taking down fences so their livestock can graze in restricted areas.

Both fences and trenches tend to do a better job of keeping elephants out than of keeping them in. They work quite well around individual landholdings, but less so around villages or common agricultural land, where no one person is responsible for the upkeep.

Financial compensation is the other key element of HEC mitigation that is being widely used, supported by a number of conservation groups. While this is often crucial for impoverished families who lose their whole year’s income to elephants in a single night, this approach also has its shortcomings. The major criticism is that it acts as a perverse subsidy that disincentivises farmers from protecting their fields. It also shifts the problem from it being each farmer’s responsibility to protect their crops to it being the government’s responsibility to keep elephants inside forests.

Various NGOs are pushing more “organic” fences, particularly beehive and chilli fences, that act as soft rather than hard barriers. They have met with some success, and seem to be growing in popularity, particularly in Africa. But they are not permanent solutions, and fail in as many cases as they succeed. Keeping bees or cultivating chillies involves people taking on a new livelihood, and comes with a host of complications, such as a drought where the bees have no flowers, or a disease that affects the bees or chillies. It works when there is external funding, but often collapses when that stops.

A text message-based early warning system has also been implemented in some parts of south India. Informing people in advance about elephants’ presence is showing considerable promise in reducing human deathss.

Last but not least are the numerous and complex “traditional” mitigation strategies – beating drums, small fires and smoke screens, chasing elephants, firecrackers, intricate trip wires and alarms. All of these work to varying degrees. The common thread running through all of them is that they depend on the ingenuity and time of the local people, and require nothing external. They are not advocated by big conservation NGOs and government agencies, which are all looking for a single large-scale solution. But they should be encouraged and enhanced.


As mentioned before, human-elephant conflict is essentially driven by the same forces as the rest of the ecological crisis – we humans are consuming too much and our population is growing. The threat to forests and other natural habitats comes less from the people who live in them, and more from global corporations and the economic engine that’s driving the world. Vast tracts of rainforests are being destroyed for oil palm plantations and industrial agriculture; mining and fossil companies are churning the earth; dams, roads and power lines are slicing up natural ecosystems. Conservationists should be targeting these processes and economic systems, but are increasingly dependent on the corporations for funding.

Until that changes, what can we do to help humans and elephants share space? For a start, we might do away with the term “conflict”. It implies an active antagonism between the two species, and that is simply not the case. In our fieldwork at the Shola Trust we’ve found that even people who have had family killed usually see it as an accident, and don’t hold a grudge against the elephants. When we observe elephants we invariably have an entourage of local people with us, all taking time off from their work to watch and animatedly discuss the animals. Something positive is clearly gained in interacting with elephants, yet conservationists assume all interactions are “conflict”. This negative vocabulary is having a real and significant impact on people who share space with elephants, and making them less tolerant.

Aside from the question of vocabulary, we have to learn from communities that have been living with elephants for centuries. Too many conservation interventions do the opposite. Indigenous peoples are enticed into “voluntary relocation” away from the forests, have fences built round them, are encouraged to grow cash crops, are given skills training and urged to take up modern jobs. This may often be completely justified and driven by the communities themselves – but sometimes only lip service is paid to the “free, prior and informed consent” demanded by the United Nations permanent forum on indigenous issues.

And we must be flexible. From the beehive barriers to the corridors to the electric fences, all of the strategies described above are being used widely across the world, with varying degrees of success and failure. The literature is full of uni-dimensional studies that measure the effectiveness of one mitigation strategy or another, without considering the gamut of ecological, social, economic and cultural contexts within which the strategy is implemented. 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.