By Dora Godinho
What does it take to mitigate and eradicate human-wildlife conflicts sustainably?
Each region and each type of conflict is a unique case but all conservationists would agree that we cannot resolve human-wildlife conflicts without a holistic approach. Such approach includes education and awareness, habitat restoration activities, capacity building and mobilization of different stakeholders and most importantly – empowerment and active participation of local communities.
In Northeast India, conflicts between people and elephants has become more frequent over the last decades due to a number of reasons, in particular encroachment, human settlements and land conversion for agricultural production and grazing in elephant corridors. All of which occurs in a context where human population increases, the resources shrink and the global climate changes.
Habitat loss and fragmentation have devastating consequences for elephants as they are compelled to penetrate human habited areas in search of food, hence destroying plantations, crops and properties which amplify the conflicts with people and retaliatory killing.
Without intervention, these conflicts will increase and consequently, many human lives will be destroyed and elephant population will continue to decrease leading towards eventual extinction. In fact, Asian elephant population has been in permanent decline and these charismatic animals are today threatened with extinction.
But we cannot let that happen and this is where conservationists can intervene to help protect both elephants and local communities in the long run by orchestrating and developing win-win situations and direct benefits for both parties.
Much progress has been made in research, and today we are able to better understand the movements, behaviors and habitat uses of elephants. Such data collection is critical and is also the first step of conservation action
A few years ago, an innovative elephant conservation project was initiated in Subankhata, in ChirangRipu Elephant Reserve in the eastern part of Manas National Park. This region had witnessed several tragic incidents which resulted in the loss of human lives and the subsequent retaliatory elephant killing.
The overall goal of the project was the long term protection and the survival of the Asian elephant in the Reserve, through encouragement and strengthening the capacity of local grassroots level NGOs and local communities in the restoration of degraded habitat, mitigation of Human Elephant Conflict (HEC) and support of alternative livelihoods.
The major challenge in this project was undoubtedly the involvement of the villagers in conservation, helping them to understand the direct link between conservation and the development of their communities from which they can highly benefit. But this can only happen through capacity building and immediate attainment of direct benefits. One of these benefits was the installation of a 14 km community based electric fencing which protects the villagers, their properties and crops from elephant intrusion. The installation of the electric fence appears to be very effective in keeping the elephants away. Since then, no major incidents were reported and the villagers are now sleeping safely and peacefully.
The electric fences are well managed by the members of the community. Thanks to the creation of eight Village Anti-depredation Committee (VAC) which have been formed among the 6 most affected villages and equipped with torch lights, temporary watch towers and 10 mobile for communication, HEC can be further monitored and mitigated.
In total, more than 200 families diversified their livelihood to sustainable activities such as mushroom farming, beekeeping, piggery, embroidery, handloom and handicrafts for forest dependent women among other socio-economic schemes. All are direct benefits from conservation which help reduce their dependency on forests and make them self-dependent to solve their issues at their community level. These activities are expected to boost up much needed and lasting contribution to biodiversity conservation in the project site. To support this objective, several educational and awareness events have been carried out such as “Haati Mere Sathi Campaign”, Observation of Elephant Day, Celebration of World Environment Day, Summer school programme, Awareness and exhibition during the local festive time and a couple of awareness campaign on the issues of human elephant conflict.
The most important action to reduce pressure on the natural resources of the remaining forest patches was the creation of a 5000 sq. m community nursery for raising seedlings, with a purpose of reforestation in the nearby degraded forest. A total of 120,000 organic saplings of locally available tree species were raised in the nursery and planted successfully in 4ha of degraded land (out of which 1 ha of land is bordered with electric fencing) by students, villagers and other stakeholders. The survival rate is almost 80%.
The passionate volunteers of the local NGO – ManasChowki Ecotourism Society (MSKETS) contributed immensely to this project. They participated in most of the project activities and resolved to play a key role in ensuring the durability of such activities. In order to encourage the community based resource pool for a long term HEC management and to strengthen the capacity of MKSETS, a floriculture nursery and an ecotourism initiative was also developed.
These project components complement each other to provide a holistic approach and help generate a positive shift in people’s behaviors and attitudes towards elephants and conservation.
This project had a huge impact in reducing HEC in the targeted area and is expected to leave a permanent legacy by leaving in place a long term framework and a model to reduce the levels of human elephant conflict. It also demonstrates how much we can achieve when we work hand in hand, at all levels of the society, towards a better future – one where people and wildlife can thrive and coexist.
Note: This project was funded by the Asian Elephant Conservation Fund of US FISH & WILDLIFE SERVICE
Dora Godinho is a Portuguese national. With a background in specialized education, she moved to Switzerland where she worked for several events and communication agencies. Her passion for nature led her to obtain a diploma as “Sustainable Development Consultant” in 2011 by the WWF Training Center, Switzerland. She co-founded Geoimpulse, an association aimed at promoting renewable energies and worked as a freelance for both the private sector and NGOs including Greenpeace before joining IUCN in 2013. Dora was in charge of partnerships and donor relations for IUCN’s SOS – Save Our Species programme. She loves travelling to India, Yoga and meditation and recently volunteered with Aaranyak.