Addressing human-elephant conflict: Tragedy in Valparai

Human-elephant conflict is a challenge faced by communities across India. As urban development and infrastructure expands to accommodate a burgeoning population, natural habitats are further encroached upon. This puts an ever-growing strain on the relationship between people and elephants as they struggle to live alongside each other, encounters involving the death of either party amount to on average one elephant and one human death every single day in India.

Photograph: Ganesh Raghunathan

Towards the end of last year, the death of a woman in the Animalai Tiger Reserve in Valparai was reported on by Indian media. The woman sustained fatal injuries in an encounter with a tusker whilst walking through the forest. Sadly, stories like this are not uncommon in Valparai and as this is an area known to Elephant Family through our ongoing support of efforts to reduce human-elephant conflict, we spoke to our conservation partner Dr. Anand Kumar to get his thoughts on the story.

Elephant Family conservation partner Dr. Anand Kumar of the Nature Conservation Foundation and his team have worked for many years in Valparai. By researching elephant behaviour the team have developed early warning systems that alert people to the presence of elephants and have formed Rapid Response Teams to reduce human and elephant fatalities.

When we spoke to Anand, he was able to tell us more about the story. In total there were 30 women working in the plantation where the incident occured, and three women had walked to the edge of the eucalyptus forest patch not knowing the elephants were there. Two adult female elephants and a calf emerged, startling the women. As one of the women could not run away she was sadly trampled by one of the tuskers. It later emerged that the estate watchman was aware of the elephants but unfortunately did not pass this information onto the field officer in charge and the workers.

The villagers of Valparai have lived alongside these elephants and know their personalities well. The elephant involved in this incident is an elderly female who has led the herd for many years, and has never been known to be aggressive. It is thought the elephants were surprised by the women, and the presence of the calf may have made them more on edge than usual. Despite what many think, elephants are easily startled and incredibly protective of their young, so a response like this is natural and not unusually aggressive.

This year Anand and his team have been responding to this incident by taking the following action:

  • Meeting the Manager of the tea plantation to implement improvements including increased reporting and communication between watchmen and staff/management, improved policies
  • Arranging a meeting between the Forest Department and the plantation management to discuss issues and the support needed to reduce the likelihood of this happening again
  • Discussing with the Forest Department an increase in Rapid Response Teams covering the plantation for the next 3 months
  • Arranging additional outreach training with plantation staff around safety

Speaking about the incident, Anand said:

“It is a challenge for us to deal with elephants presence in 22-27 places every day with 70,000 people moving around, we really need to get to people to be aware and vigilant to protect themselves and their family members.”

Over their years working in the area Anand and his team have reduced the average number of human deaths from HEC per year to less than one, and hopefully these measures will improve safety and human-elephant coexistence in and around this plantation following this sad incident.