What it takes to live near an elephant herd

As their numbers grow and their habitats shrink, Indian elephants are having more run-ins with people

Malasar indigenous people walk through the forest to a nearby sacred pond as part of a religious event at Topslip in Tamil Nadu, India, on April 14. (Bhagi Siva)
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O’VALLEY, India — All around this town in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu, the British Empire remade the land. Like a crazed plastic surgeon, it made incisions where there were none, dividing territories that had once been united. It grafted tea and cardamom and timber plantations onto the slopes of the Western Ghats, a thousand-mile mountain range lush with old rainforests. It transplanted whole communities in its effort to organize labor for its plantations.

But long before the British, there were elephants here. As the Empire transformed their terrain, they kept marching through it — as they still do, even as environmental damage and haphazard development degrade their ancient geographies. Over centuries, elephant herds establish distinct routes — or “corridors” — that run from feeding grounds to watering holes, and they pass this knowledge down to their young. “They walk 20 or 25 kilometers a day — their bodies need it. It’s like how we get up and run in the morning,” said M. S. Selvaraj, who leads an organization of farmers and workers in O’ Valley. “Sometimes you’ll see an elephant eat at a place, go somewhere else, and return after a year. They’re creatures of habit.”

That these wild elephants are still around, and that their numbers have improved since the 1970s, is a mark of success of a particular model of conservation: one in which elephants were sequestered from humans, to the point that communities were turned out of forested areas, however long they’d lived there. But as the population of elephants swelled, they required more of everything: more food, more water, more territory. Instead, they’re getting less. In recent years, hotter summers have dried up water bodies. During monsoon season, prolonged rainfall, thought to be triggered by climate change, has led to landslides. Deforestation, the sprawl of new settlements and construction projects have eaten into the elephants’ habitats and corridors. As a result, the animals are increasingly forced into conflict with the people living in the Ghats, leading to deaths on both sides, and destroying homes and livelihoods in places where people are already poor.

Dozens of elephant corridors across India face similar troubles, hampering governments and NGOs trying to protect the endangered Asian elephant. On average, a report from the Wildlife Trust of India found in 2017, a hundred elephants and 400 people die every year in such incidents; since then, a government statistic from 2020 suggests, the human fatalities have only increased. To curb these deaths, conservationists have to rethink the strategy of just strictly segregating human society from the wild. In a country like India, where rural communities rely on the forest’s resources and had learned long ago how to live alongside its animals, any solution needs to take the human residents and their ways of life into account, conservationists and local leaders say.

“We can’t take either the people or the elephants out,” says Ganesh Raghunathan, an ecologist who studies human-elephant interaction at the Nature Conservation Foundation. “The only way is to cohabit.”

An elephant corridor

In the Western Ghats, a range that spreads over 62,000 square miles and spills across six states in southern and western India, the elephants occupy a host of habitats: the moist, evergreen forests of the foothills; the dry, deciduous jungles above; and the rolling grasslands higher up still. One long-established elephant corridor runs northwest to southeast in the state of Tamil Nadu, from a town called Moyar to another called Masinagudi, through groves of acacias and red cedars. In this region, the British turned thousands of acres of jungle into coffee and tea plantations. (The British Museum still holds share certificates issued by the Moyar Coffee Company in the 1880s.) In the 1970s, the Indian government folded the corridor into a biosphere reserve. Nonetheless, over the following decades, roads cut through the area, the cattle of villagers strayed into the forests, and work on expanding a hydroelectric power project began. When the elephants found their foraging grounds annexed and their water holes paved over, some of them scattered in other directions — a few as far as O’ Valley, a couple of dozen miles southeast of Masinagudi, where Selvaraj lives.

Selvaraj himself is a product of colonial disruption. In the late 1700s, his ancestors had been forcibly relocated from elsewhere in Tamil Nadu to British tea plantations in central Sri Lanka, to work as indentured laborers. Only after the mid-1960s, when India and Sri Lanka signed a treaty, were several thousand of these families repatriated to India. Selvaraj arrived with his parents in 1979, as a teenager, and eventually settled near O’ Valley, in the misty, hilly district of Gudalur.

Three states converge in this part of India. Selvaraj can walk through the foothills, where it seems to be always raining in the jungles of shola trees, and then look up the slopes at the teak and myrtle forests that seasonally lose their leaves, and then peer further up at the grasslands occupied by bands of nimble Nilgiri tahr. These species are all native to the Ghats, but some — the teak, for example — have been cultivated with purpose, on British and then Indian estates. And while it wasn’t out of the ordinary to spot elephants in the wild, Selvaraj remembered, they strayed only rarely into the paths of people.

But as human development trespassed into elephant corridors, that changed. Over the past 15 or 20 years, Selvaraj said, illegal timber-logging mafias have ruined grazing grounds. There are new highways and railroads, unlicensed hotels and resorts, and unsanctioned mining spreading across the Western Ghats. The elephants were forced out of their old haunts and habits. “Now they come into O’ Valley and other villages as well,” he said, “and they see our paddy and jackfruit and banana, so of course they’re tempted to eat here.” It isn’t surprising at all, he pointed out, that when hungry elephants meet alarmed villagers, violence is a frequent outcome.

In the path of the elephant

In the summer of 2022, a 52-year-old man named Sri Nathan Sangili left his village of Selvapuram, in O’Valley, to go work on his tea garden — a tract he’d leased from someone else. Before setting out, his wife Yoga remembers, he called ahead to ask about elephant movements along his route and was reassured that there had been no sightings at all. Even so, in a forested spot near his tea garden, Sangili encountered an elephant and was killed. “A young boy followed the ringing of his phone to find his corpse lying there, where he’d been attacked,” Yoga said. “I’ve been crying so much my body has given up and my tears have dried up.”

Across these parts of the Western Ghats, tragic stories like Sangili’s have grown worryingly common; in O’Valley, his was the third such death in three months. Parameswaran Ganeshan, the owner of a grocery store in a village named Sirukundra, estimates that elephants have broken into his shop 50 times over the past two decades. Kunjalavi Moidhu, a 49-year-old father of two, watched an elephant wrap its trunk against his wife Mumtaj, slam her into a rock wall, and then trample upon her. In the village of Kannampalli, Rajan Chellan saw his home destroyed by an elephant a few years ago. He belongs to the community of Kattunayakars, one of several designated “tribes” that have shared the Western Ghats with its elephants and other wildlife for centuries. “We have always lived in the forest,” he says, “and have never seen [such attacks] happening in the past.”

To avoid encounters with elephants, people make adjustments that range from the inconvenient to the arduous. Farmers are choosing to stop planting jackfruit, mango and other crops that attract elephants. Villagers have taken to staying indoors after nightfall; workers demand electric fences around estates and plantations. Forest departments recruit the Malasar, an indigenous community with a long history of caring for elephants, to train captive elephants — called “kumkis” — to drive other rogue elephants away from human settlements. It’s a controversial practice — if not outright illegal, as some animal-rights activists argue.

Others take more low-key, pragmatic approaches. Authorities have erected warning beacons around the foothills, which shine red if an elephant is spotted in the vicinity, warning people to avoid the area. As part of a broader restoration campaign, the Nature Conservation Foundation is replenishing forests with a diversity of indigenous plants, including some species that elephants feed upon, and that have dwindled in recent years.

“The quality of the forest is more important than the size of the forest,” said Srinivasan Kashinathan, a conservation ecologist at NCF. “Even one acre can have much biodiversity, which can help with the conservation of elephants.”

NCF’s biologists collect seeds from the outskirts of forests or the sides of roads, to avoid disturbing the forest itself. Then they germinate the seeds in nurseries, often over periods as long as five years, before planting the saplings in chosen forest sites.

These tactics still fall short of the kind of action that Selvaraj wishes the government would take: cracking down on loggers or illegal builders, say, or being more circumspect about planning new highways. But they do acknowledge the importance of humans in this landscape, and leave space for their lives and work. Selvaraj bemoans the activists and policymakers who believe that the best way to protect wildlife is to move people further and further away — even if they’ve lived on their land for generations.

A true solution, he thinks, has to work for both humans and animals both. “The forests and the elephants,” he said, “can only be saved by its people.”