Why CoExistence?

Words by Dr Tarsh Thekaekara of The Real Elephant Collective

Twenty twenty was an exceptional year. Where an microscopic virus brought human activity to a grinding halt. Photos of wildlife roaming urban streets around the world went viral. Herds of fallow deer grazed the lawns of housing estates in east London. On the streets of Haifa, Israel, wild boar snuffled and foraged for food while river dolphins jumped in Istanbul’s Bosphorus where huge tankers, cargo ships and passenger boats previously criss-crossed.

Our lightened footprint showed us that animals and nature are just around the corner, waiting to share space, if we let them. Can we make CoExistence more permanent?

There are places in the world, where people and elephants have always been living together in ways that are unimaginable to most of us. It’s an ancient relationship, that is being challenged and negotiated by both elephants and people.

The Gudalur forest division in the Nilgiri hills of south India is one such place, where a quarter of a million people share space with 150 elephants, a few tigers and many other life forms.

Watching the elephants over three years, there appear to have varying personalities and levels of comfort around people. There are ‘transient elephants’ – rarely seen, mainly on the night cameras, as they move across the region from more intact forests around. There are ‘resident’ elephants, who stay away from human habitation and people. The ‘brash youngsters’ who are curious and come near people, but are not yet comfortable around them and display the “fight or flight” response. Finally there are ‘highly habituated’ elephants, who are always seen among people, they don’t attack and are not frazzled by their attempts to scare them. They are also very aware of the attention their fans shower on them. Like our local celebrity Ganeshan – drinking water from people’s tanks, tapping on buses and always followed by admiring locals. When people complain about elephants, it’s not really the whole species – it’s just a few of the ‘brash youngsters’, who cause most of the damage to people.

Humans, are also all different in their approach to elephants. The indigenous people of the region have been living with elephants for centuries. Among them are hunter-gatherers, who don’t grow crops on a large scale, and have very little trouble with elephant. They’re settled agriculturalists, who grow crops, but have adapted to living with elephants over centuries. There have also been waves of migration into the hills, where the newer residents find it more challenging.

But even when there is ‘conflict’ it’s actually a sign of coexistence and constant negotiation. The real conflict is in urban spaces, where one species has completely wiped out almost all other life forms, and continues to keep them out even when they are trying to come back. The negotiation is a vital element – where both people and elephants breach and reassess boundaries every day, with a keen understanding of each other’s behaviour and culture.

Elephants are a flagship for coexistence. Almost 80% of the wild elephant range is outside protected areas, and in a country like India, shared with humans living at very high densities of over 400 people/ km2. They consume large quantities of food and water, and compete with people for the same resources. At the end of the day, people tolerate the existence of elephants even as they protect their lands

While most of us think of conservation as small packets of nature locked away from humans, nature is actually all around us. Coexistence is about recognising this, and living better with all other life forms everywhere on earth. To encourage people to remember that they are a part of nature, and have the capacity to heal, re-centre, and support our symbiotic connection. To push the genius of human innovation towards reducing levels of consumption and human population growth, to save not half or 30%, but the whole planet.

This knowledge, of how to live well with the earth, exists with indigenous people across the globe. But their existences are threatened every day with the risk of permanently erasing our tenuous link to the vast knowledge bank on how to live sustainably. If some people can live with the largest terrestrial mammal on this earth, why can’t all other people live with smaller life forms? Viewed in this light, human-wildlife interactions are not a problem, but the solution to the current ecological crisis.

As these Lantana elephants travel around the world, they call on people to live well with nature around them, carrying the stories and knowledge of how they live with people. This isn’t a call for an extreme return to the wild. Look around you, wherever you are. Who do you share your world with? Can we increase our coexistence coefficient everywhere, and rewild ourselves. Nature is intelligent and adapting. Other life forms will meet our efforts halfway, if only we give them the chance.

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