Local people and forest officials chase away a wild elephant at Baragoan in Guwahati, Assam. The elephant came from nearby Amchang Wildlife Sanctuary looking for food. Forest officials later tranquillized it. Credit: Biju Boro/AFP/Getty Images

In Gudalur in the hilly Nilgiris district in Tamil Nadu, Ganeshan, a tuskless male, is among 150 elephants who live among a human population of fewer than 250,000 in an area of 580 square kilometre. While pachyderms and humans go about their daily routines largely without incident, occasional friction may lead an elephant to be mistaken for a rogue and removed from his home turf.

A non-profit The Shola Trust focuses on negating such conflicts. It is currently mapping the behaviour of elephants to make coexistence with humans less turbulent. More than 80% of elephants in the country live outside protected areas and share space with humans. Measures for safe coexistence is a key conservation topic.

Tarsh Thekaekara, a conservationist and researcher at The Shola Trust says wildlife conservation needs to be viewed outside the ‘fortress’ model, especially for large mammals whose home ranges cannot be limited to designated reserves. A better approach incorporates multiple land-use categories to integrate the needs of wildlife and people.

Several researchers have developed models of coexistence in varied landscapes. They recently joined forces to mainstream the idea of coexistence and created the Coexistence Consortium. A think-tank of ecologists, anthropologists, geographers and conservationists, which aims “to redefine the dominant conservation paradigm — not just protect wild animals locked away in far-off pockets of forests, but also coexist and live well with animals and nature around us”.

A scientist with Nature Conservation Foundation, and the Zoological Society of London, Sahil Nijhawan, is a member of the consortium’s working group. He researches coexistence in parts of Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland in India’s eastern states, and in South America and Africa.

"Back in the day, when we had wildlife in abundance, we did not talk about conservation since there was no need for it. Conservation is needed only when there is scarcity. Tribal societies have the concept of abundance and the belief that abundance needs to be preserved,” he says.

The consortium believes that India, with its extensive practical experience of coexistence, can be a useful example of such measures. In Europe for instance, where large mammals, once kept clear of human contact are returning in numbers. The human response is often violent — Norway’s decision to “put down” a playful large walrus who got “dangerously” close to humans a case in point.

The researchers also intend to debunk the expectation that coexistence is pleasant. “Coexistence is about living with discomfort — for humans as well as the animals,” says Tarsh.

Consortium director, Aritra Kshettry, who has researched elephant and leopard interactions with humans in West Bengal says in reality, when humans and wildlife share space, it is not always harmonious. “Negative outcomes are part of it. The idea is to find ways to reduce the damage,” he says. “Better understanding of the forms of tolerance and mutual accommodation would be useful for coadaptation towards coexistence.”

A study in Gudalur identified three socio-cultural variables as relevant to tolerance — a shared history of living with elephants, mode of subsistence and type of agricultural crops, and a contextualisation of “what an elephant is”.

Tolerance was more pronounced among adivasi or tribal communities, who were originally hunter-gatherers. For them, elephants were ‘other-than-human persons’. This belief supported tolerance and coexistence since it “allowed for elephant’s individuality and interpersonal negotiations of shared space, which is limited in other world-views, including the worshipping of elephants as [the deity] Ganesha,” the study found.

India is home to two-thirds of the world's Asian elephants and tigers who share space with 1.4 billion people at a relatively high density of more than 400 people per square kilometre. Elephants as large mammals have a larger home range, and the damage they cause can be far-reaching and significant. Aritra says in West Bengal, elephant encounters lead to an average of 40 deaths a year

Coexistence with leopards is vastly different. “The dominant narrative was leopards visit and there are no resident ones in the largely (tea) plantation landscape,” he says. The study found that there were 13 leopards in a 100 square kilometre sprawl and that negative encounters with leopards were mostly accidental and in self-defence. As a mitigation measure, researchers replicated what plantation workers did in the past — make a lot of noise to warn the leopards as they set out to work. The biggest challenge, he says, was dependency of both the wild cat and humans on livestock for sustenance. “About 65% of the leopard diet was livestock,” Aritra says.

Schemes like the livestock insurance programme have been successful because people don’t retaliate in anger when the loss is compensated. In another measure, and early warning system that sends out text messages to locals when an elephant is sighted was successful in places like Valparai in Tamil Nadu and Hassan in Karnataka. But the same system, when replicated in Gudalur and West Bengal, proved useless. “Here, instead of being cautious, enthusiastic people gathered to watch the elephant when they received the warning text. It was more of an entertainment,” says Tarsh.

At the core of coexistence measures is community engagement and participation. This, the consortium says, is often missing from attempts to mitigate human-wildlife conflict situations. For instance, no government policy recognises how different communities understand and negotiate space with wildlife.