The Elephant Hills

From conflicts to coexistence in the Anamalai hills

A long-term study of Asian elephants and their relationships with people has helped understand and minimise conflicts  in a landscape of forests and plantations in the Valparai plateau.

  • Damage to a house by elephants

  • Elephants near a residential colony

  • Waiting to cross the road on a busy day

  • Elephant drive operation

  • Elephant in the backyard

  • Early warning by Bulk SMS

  • Alert indicators to warn people of elephant presence

  • Plantation workers sharing space with elephants and Gaur

  • A local resident of Valparai watches elephants walk past his workplace

  • Elephants deciding which way to go

Understanding human - elephant interactions

Wild elephants and people both modify the landscapes they live in: elephants by their movements and foraging behaviour and people by clearing forest lands for agriculture and other activities. With the advent of agriculture, the increased interface between elephants and people has led to interactions and confrontations, including negative ones causing loss of human and elephant lives, crops, habitat, and property.  This issue, labeled human - elephant conflict (HEC), is often due to changing land-use patterns coupled to loss of elephant habitats and resultant conflicts over resources such as food and space. Understanding the causes, patterns, and nature of relationships between people and elephants is vital to minimise negative interactions and build coexistence.

The Anamalai hills supports the second largest elephant population in India. Beginning in the late 1800s, large expanses of rainforest were cleared for plantations leaving behind smaller fragments in the Valparai plateau. From 2002 onwards, we began studies of elephants in this landscape, including on elephant behaviour through individual identification, patterns of habitat use and ranging, and  interactions with people. Our database built over the years now includes around 100 elephants in three regular herds and other peripheral herds in the plateau. The studies identified important habitats such as riverine forest and fragments, and helped pin-point locations and seasons of conflict.

Reducing damage, facilitating passage

Elephants in the Valparai landscape occasionally damage buildings, such as ration shops, school noon-meal centres, and kitchens of households, where foodgrains are stored. Based on close monitoring and mapping of such incidents across years, with the support of the Forest Department and local plantation companies, we were able to target mitigation measures to avoid such incidents. This included changing the storage locations to better buildings, moving shops and stores to a safer distance away from housing colonies, installing better protection for buildings such as electric fences, and encouraging companies to insure specific buildings to offset risk. The Government has also mooted mobile ration shops for supply of essentials to local communities.

Simultaneously, we have identified measures to enable elephants to move through the landscape, which is a part of their home range, with minimal harassment and obstacles. This includes identifying areas important for elephants such as crucial habitat fragments, rivers and water bodies, and movement routes. In a few cases, electric fences that blocked movement routes were taken down by sensitive and responsible local companies, who instead deployed them in smaller areas to protect specific buildings and colonies.

Early warning to reduce harmful encounters

One of the most serious consequences of people and elephants sharing a landscape is that it occasionally leads to human deaths due to elephants. Elephants, too, may die due to accidents, pressures, or use of inappropriate retaliatory measures. In the Anamalai hills, our studies showed that lack of information on elephant presence and movements was a primary reason behind unexpected encounters with elephants, conflict incidence, and resulting human fatalities. In order to reduce this, we developed and implemented an innovative early warning system (EWS).

The system, initiated from 2006 onwards, is coupled to an elephant informant network, which receives and passes on messages about elephant presence to people in the landscape. With the advent and widespread use of mobile phones, the EWS also initiated bulk-SMS system to inform, on a daily basis, specific people among more than 2800 subscribers. When elephants are found in an area, a personalized elephant location alert message is sent to people living in the vicinity. Elephant presence is also communicated as a crawl on the local cable TV channel. Additionally, GSM-based elephant alert red indicator lights are mounted in over 25 prominent locations and remotely operated when elephants are within 1 km. These methods have been well received and implemented by the community and are proving to be effective. A prototype GSM-based voice system for public transport buses to inform passengers before they alight is also being tested.

Living with elephants

A documentary by Evanescence Studios

Expanding impacts and research

The measures in place in the Valparai landscape have helped reduce the incidence of damages to buildings, bring down the number of human and elephant deaths in the landscape, and continue to facilitate movement of elephants. Our pioneering work on deployment of early warning systems has received support from the state Forest Department and local plantation companies, who have now extended and deployed such systems to benefit more areas and people. The Forest Department has also created a rapid response team to assist local people in time of need.

Collaborative research is adding more layers to our work on elephants in this landscape, even as we begin to extend our work elsewhere. This includes research into elephant behaviour and stress physiology, impacts of early warning systems, participation and attitudes of local community, extension into other Western Ghats landscapes such as in Satyamangalam and Nilgiris.

Broadly, our work reveals the crucial importance of understanding  aspects at the level of individual elephants. Our work suggests that there are no problem elephants, while there are problem locations. By assisting and empowering local communities to use science-based, innovative, and pro-active early warning systems and mitigation measures, we can build coexistence between people and elephants in the long run.





  • Journal Article
    Physiological stress responses in wild Asian elephants Elephas maximus in a human-dominated landscape in the Western Ghats, southern India
    General and Comparative Endocrinology

    PDF, 749 KB

    Increasing anthropogenic pressures on forests, especially in the tropical regions of the world, have restricted several large mammalian species such as the Asian elephant to fragmented habitats within human-dominated landscapes. In this study, we assessed the effects of an anthropogenic landscape and its associated conflict with humans on the physiological stress responses displayed by Asian elephants in the Anamalai Hills of the Western Ghats mountains in south India. We have quantified faecal glucocorticoid metabolite (FGM) concentrations in focal individual elephants within and across herds, inhabiting both anthropogenic and natural habitats, and evaluated their physiological responses to different socio-ecological situations between November 2013 and April 2014. Physiological stress responses varied significantly among the tested elephant age- and sex categories but not across different types of social organisation. Adults generally showed higher FGM concentrations, even in the absence of stressors, than did any other age category. Males also appeared to have higher stress responses than did females. Although there was no significant variation in mean stress levels between elephants on the plateau in the absence of human interactions and those in adjacent, relatively undisturbed forest habitats, FGM concentrations increased significantly for adult and subadult individuals as well as for calves following drives, during which elephants were driven off aggressively by people. Our study emphasises the general importance of understanding individual variation in physiology and behaviour within a population of a seriously threatened mammalian species, the Asian elephant, and specifically highlights the need for long-term monitoring of the stress physiology and behavioural responses of individual elephants across both human-dominated and natural landscapes. Such studies would not only provide comprehensive insights into the adaptive biology of elephants in changing ecological regimes but also aid in the development of effective management and conservation strategies for endangered populations of the species.

  • Journal Article
    Whose habitat is it anyway? Role of natural and anthropogenic habitats in conservation of charismatic species
    Tropical Conservation Science 11: 1-5.

    PDF, 493 KB

    Developmental activities have been one of the major drivers of conversion of natural forest areas into mosaics of forest fragments, agriculture, and plantations, threatening the existence of wildlife species in such altered landscapes. Most conservation research and actions are protected area centric and seldom addresses the importance of landscape matrices around these protected areas in providing habitats to a wide range of species. In this article, we bring out the crucial role of natural and anthropogenic habitats for the existence of three charismatic species, namely, Asian elephants, leopard, and lion-tailed macaques. The larger public perception of where the animals should be and where the animals actually are is also discussed. We emphasize that, while habitat generalists often adapt behaviorally and ecologically to modified landscapes, habitat specialists, such as the lion-tailed macaques could find survival harder, with increasing anthropogenic pressures and loss of their habitats.

  • Book Chapter
    Expanding nature conservation: considering wide landscapes and deep histories.
    Pages 249-267 in G. Cederlöf and M. Rangarajan (editors), 'At Nature's Edge: The Global Present and Long-Term History,' Oxford University Press, New Delhi. 331 pp.
  • Art & Literary
    Elephant crossing
    Orion 35(3): 6. (May | June 2016)
  • Popular Article
    The culling fields
    The Hindu (op-ed) 17 June 2016, page 9.

    A better approach to man-wildlife conflict management requires an integration of scientific evidence, animal behaviour, and landscape and socio-economic context.

    Read more here:

  • Popular Article
    தன்னை அறியும் யானைகளின் துயரை அறிவோம். (On threats to Asian elephants)
    The Hindu Tamil Diwali Malar.

    Jeganathan, P. (2016). Thannai Ariyum Yanaigalin Thuyarai Arivom (On threats to Asian elephants). The Hindu Tamil Diwali Malar. The Hindu Magazine-Diwali Special issue–November 2016. Pp.222-230. Link here.

  • Popular Article
    Pachyderm Problems
    Saevus September 2015

    PDF, 4.67 MB

  • Popular Article
    Current ecological concerns in the power sector: options to avoid or minimise impacts
    Pages 89-100 in M N Goswami and P Chaudhry (editors) An Epochal Shift in the Idea of India-Meeting aspirations? IPPAI Knowledge Report, Independent Power Producers Association of India, New Delhi.

    PDF, 1.36 MB

  • Book Chapter
    Restoring nature: wildlife conservation in landscapes fragmented by plantation crops in India.
    Pages 178-214. In Nature Without Borders (Eds. Mahesh Rangarajan, MD Madhusudan & Ghazala Shahabuddin), Orient Blackswan, New Delhi.
  • Book Chapter
    Fostering human-elephant coexistence in the Valparai landscape,Anamalai Tiger Reserve, Tamil Nadu
    Pages 14 - 26, in Human-Wildlife Conflict in the Mountains of SAARC Region - Compilation of Successful Management Strategies and Practices. SAARC Forestry Centre, Thimpu, Bhutan.

    PDF, 823 KB

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