Why is this Interesting? - The Elephant Edition

On human-wildlife conflict, chili pepper, and a gentle touch

Colin here. Human/wildlife conflict is one of the biggest issues in conservation. The friction is simple: farmers depend on crops to feed their families and to sell, animals want to eat and are fairly non-discriminatory in terms of where or how they do it. When deforestation and other factors force animals within close proximity to humans, crops get raided, livelihood gets destroyed, and humans often take measures to make sure it doesn’t happen again. 

The issue has been huge in Africa, but has been getting particularly bad in Sri Lanka, as The Economist reports:

As John Gimlette, a writer on Sri Lanka, puts it, elephants have served as tractor, limousine, warhorse and executioner. Today very few remain enslaved, but 6,000-plus wild animals roam the countryside. There, “human-elephant conflict” has always been an issue. Humans have been chasing away elephants for as long they have been growing crops; elephants have long flattened both. So how to explain an alarming increase in human-elephant collisions in just the past couple of years? Until recently 200-250 elephants died at human hands every year. But in 2018 the toll climbed to 319, and to 386 last year. Over the same period, human fatalities have risen sharply, to 114 last year.

Why is this interesting?

The situation has turned into a malicious arms race of sorts, with all sorts of tactics employed to keep elephants at bay. But even as things get more severe and malicious, the elephants figure them out. One particularly notable example from the article has elephants dealing, “with electric fences by, for instance, uprooting trees and dropping them on the wires.” Not surprisingly, this only makes things worse on both sides, with the elephants growing more aggressive and ready to charge humans, while the humans have to come up with ever-more dangerous methods to keep them out. “Some law-breaking villagers,” the piece goes on to explain, “pepper animals with shot, set snares to catch trunks or legs, or plant explosives in pumpkins that mangle animals’ mouths and lead to horrific deaths by starvation.”

So what is working? One non-violent method that seems to be having a positive effect involves farmers planting a ring of chilies around the crops that the elephants want. Since the animals don’t care for the spicy taste, this can work as a deterrent (and also produces a crop that can be exported). This also works by creating a “fence” of powdered chili. 

Novelty aside, the idea works by conditioning the elephants. According to a conservation blog: “The logic was that you can educate elephants by giving them a very powerful, negative experience. So we are trying to associate places with bad experiences, as their reaction has always been retreat because it is a bit like somebody throwing sand in your face. You can’t fight if you can’t see, and elephants don’t see very well—everything they get from their world is from their nose.”

And if all else fails, try singing … The Economist piece concludes on a sweet note: “The animals seem to appreciate a kindly touch. In the middle of his paddy, Lalith and his neighbours demonstrate their technique, passed down for generations. They sing to the animals: ‘Go away, little babies, go away. But once we’ve gathered the harvest, anything we leave is yours.’ How on earth, Banyan asks, can that work? It just does, Lalith replies. After all, he adds, ‘We’re still here, and so are the elephants.’” (CJN)

Chart of the Day:

From Business Insider a few weeks ago: “A 2019 report from the executive-staffing firm Crist Kolder Associates said CEOs' average age at the time of hiring for Fortune 500 and S&P 500 companies rose sharply to 58 years old from 54 between 2018 and 2019.” (NRB)

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)

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