Nishant Srinivasaiah is a certain breed of person, one with a deep reservoir of patience. He spends hours, that stretch into days, waiting and hoping to observe Asian elephants in the wild. “I don’t always have patience with people, but I do with elephants,” he laughs.
Backpack on, binoculars in hand, the PhD student has offered to let SBS join him for the day as he searches for three elephants he’s been observing for many years in the southern Indian state of Karnataka.
The leader of the group he calls Tin Tin because his tusks move up in the same direction as Tin Tin’s hair. The others are PT Junior (Perfect Tusks) and Sam (sub-adult male).
Tin Tin, PT Junior and Sam have moved out of a national park to land near a local village, looking for food; there’s nothing more nutritious than an irrigated crop. It’s a risky strategy for both elephants and humans.
“People around here say they’re very scared to come out of their houses,” says Mr Srinivasaiah.
“Similarly for elephants, they’re extremely scared when they’re moving around at night. Increasingly, their behaviour might get more aggressive.”
Mr Srinivasaiah’s study area covers 6000 square kilometres across the states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. In the past month, elephants have killed seven people in this area.
Wild Asian elephants in Karnataka, southern India. (Nishant Srinivasaiah)
Scientists say climate change will bring more extreme weather events, like droughts, which will force hungry elephants to go in search of food. Invariably, this will lead to conflict.
These elephant scientists have welcomed India’s move to ratify the global agreement on climate change agreed in Paris last year.
More than 60 countries have now ratified the agreement representing almost 52 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Once that figure reaches 55 per cent the deal comes into effect.
India’s Minister of External Affairs, Sushma Swaraj, said October 2 was a significant day for India to ratify the agreement.
“This has been well thought out,” she told the United Nations recently.
“It is the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi who epitomised a lifestyle with the smallest carbon footprint.”
Professor Raman Sukumar, of the Indian Institute of Science and one of the world’s leading Asian elephant experts, says the move is significant.
“I think India has taken a very bold step and joined the global community in its commitment to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases and dangerous global warming,” he said.
In 1983, Professor Sukumar witnessed the behaviour of a clan of elephants forced from its natural habitat as a result of one of India’s worst droughts.
“Approximately 50 elephants left the states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka and marched off into the northern regions of Andhra Pradesh where wild elephants had not been seen in the last 300 to 400 years, and there was this sharp escalation in conflict between elephants and people,” he says.
The elephants trampled agriculture crops and dozens of people were killed.
“My fears are that with climate change, with heat waves or the failure of the monsoon, the elephants’ habitat would be highly stressed, that these populations will now start coming out of their natural habitat and starting wandering in human dominated landscapes,” says Professor Sukumar.
“I really don’t think we’re fully prepared to deal with this conflict because of the scale and the magnitude.
“Dealing with this conflict would mean developing the management skills to handle large numbers of elephants. The animals may not just have to be driven back, they may have to be captured and transported back to the forest. Some of the elephants may have to be captured and kept in captivity.”
The Asian elephant is found in 13 countries. India has more than half the global population with an estimated 25,000 to 30,000 in the wild.
But even the most ambitious climate agreement isn’t going to stop extreme weather events and their impact on the Asian elephant.
Indian experts say the focus must be on managing the conflict that’s coming.
Professor Sukumar says in future local people will need to be educated about how to behave if they encounter wild elephants.
Mr Srinivasaiah often sees villagers getting too close to elephants, assuming they’re docile creatures.
That didn’t happen on the day SBS joined Mr Srinivasaiah.
Tin Tin, PT Junior and Sam spent the day in a dry lake, camouflaged by ipomea weed and undisturbed by humans.
But as the sun set the mighty animals moved on in search of water.
The erratic weather may make some pessimistic about their future, but India’s elephant experts believe the animal is as tough as its hide; that it will survive and adapt to a warming planet.