“What we do not destroy in nature,
we come to worship- though
we may yet destroy it.”

– Eric Scigliano (2004), Love, War and Circuses: The Age-old Relationship Between Elephants and Humans

The Asian elephant is listed as Endangered  on The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, with a gradually declining population.

Like elsewhere, wild Asian elephants in India are facing the threats of systematic habitat loss and fragmentation in an increasingly human-dominated landscape, thereby raising the frequency of violent encounters between humans and elephants. With nearly 80 elephant deaths on an average every year due to electrocution, poisoning, collisions with trains and poaching, the future of these animals looks bleak in India. A recent study conducted in Assam, northeast India, however, offers a ray of hope. The study published by Cambridge University Press in the journal Oryx found ‘emotional coping’ to be a significant factor in building or eroding people’s tolerance towards damage causing elephants.

The study, which was conducted in eight villages near two protected areas in Assam, shows that people consider elephant depredation to be on the rise and regard a loss in habitat as the primary cause of this. However, it was found that despite experiencing losses in elephant attacks, hostility towards the animals is low and tolerance is high. The author of the study believes that this is can be attributed to effective ‘emotional coping’ by the communities, which arises from the availability of a natural support system, religious and cultural beliefs surrounding elephants and also people’s tendency to attribute anthropomorphic qualities to elephants and empathise with them.

As scientific attention is being drawn to the understanding of social aspects and the role of local communities in conservation, this study offers a new opportunity to look at human–elephant relationships in a socio-cultural context and to observe how this relationship is sustained even in hostile conditions. Government payments to compensate for losses caused by elephant attacks are often inadequate and not perceived as very encouraging by the people affected. It is estimated that the compensation payments due to victims of elephant attacks may run up to nearly two million British pounds. Under such circumstances, people’s tolerance levels towards elephants can be expected to be low. However, the study finds that this is not the case. People still consider elephants to be divine creatures and take any losses caused by these animals as an ‘offering’ or even as ‘punishment’ for failing to propitiate the Almighty.

The author of the study says “The reverence for elephants in many Asian cultures is well documented and images of elegantly decked elephants in festivals and ceremonies are quite common. Elephants have always been regarded as living forms of the Hindu deity Ganesha and worshipped as such. However, it was interesting to see whether the same sentiments would be extended to the wild rampaging herds as well. And indeed, they were”.

Together with this, the consideration that elephants are sentient beings like humans also provides succour to affected families, who feel that the elephants are co-sufferers who are losing their ‘homes’ to rampant deforestation and hence are being forced to raid people’s fields and granaries for food. According to the author, “Despite spending many sleepless nights guarding their fields, farmers rarely blamed the elephants for the havoc; instead they criticised the lax environmental norms of the government which have made it easy for unscrupulous elements to cut down forests and destroy the elephants’ habitat”.

A high-rise night shelter in a village to escape from elephant attacks
A high-rise night shelter in a village to escape from elephant attacks

The study also for the first time explicitly states the role of natural support systems in coping with stress and grief related to elephant attacks and subsequent losses. In the absence of institutional mechanisms of support, people in the study area rely heavily on family and neighbours to ward of elephant raids and to recover from attacks when they occur.

The findings of the study are significant in that they hold potential for working with communities affected by wildlife caused damages to build social capacity, and to take collective action towards mitigation that will be beneficial for both people and wildlife. The study may also have wider implications for building tolerance and generating positive attitudes towards wildlife, improving the mental well-being of affected communities, and achieving conservation goals.

The paper, “Emotional coping among communities affected by wildlife–caused damage in north-east India: opportunities for building tolerance and improving conservation outcomes,” is available Open Access in the journal Oryx.

Photos provided by: Mayuri Gogoi

House destroyed by elephants
A watch-tower erected in a crop field
Crop Field destroyed by elephant herd

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