Asian elephants, the largest land mammals on the continent, can weigh as much as a forklift. This suggests they shouldn’t be too hard to find. Yet somehow, the team from the Andhra Pradesh forest service couldn’t seem to locate the elephants that had lately been causing havoc—lumbering through villagers’ rice paddies, sugarcane fields, and banana crops. We sped down a road—first paved, then dirt. One man chattered on his cell phone while another panned the beam of his flashlight over the fields. All we could make out was the rise and fall of the land, with chirping crickets as a soundtrack. Where had the elephants gone?
Asian elephants—with their rounded ears, wrinkled grey skin, and frolicking habits—are undeniably charming. They use their long trunks to acknowledge and comfort one another, and may even intertwine them in friendship. They flap their ears, which are filled with blood vessels, to cool their bodies. They walk on their toes, with fibrous cushioning on the bottoms of their feet serving as shock absorbers. They can sleep while standing, though they’re one of the few mammals that can’t jump. And they hold an important place in India’s religious and cultural history: Their images grace the entrance to ancient palaces, and captive elephants have traditionally played a key role in temple rituals.
Elephants are sensitive and intelligent; a good deal of their behavior is learned. They have a highly developed neocortex, which governs sensory perception, spatial reasoning, conscious thought, and motor commands. (In humans it controls language.) They’re one of the few animals that can recognize themselves in a mirror. They can use tools to solve problems. They display compassion, grief, mimicry, and altruism. And their memory is, indeed, legendary. It enables them to recall the location of waterholes during migration, and to recognize long-lost companions.
Their terrain once extended from Syria to China—more than nine million square kilometers. Yet now—as their habitat has become fragmented by farming, industry, and the growth spurred by infrastructure—Asian elephants find themselves out of place. Their remaining population has declined by an estimated 50 percent in the past three generations, to less than 50,000—more than half of those in India. The rest are scattered in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Indonesia, Nepal, and other countries in South and Southeast Asia. Since 1986, the Asian elephant has been listed as an endangered species on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List.
India has prohibited the capture and sale of Asian elephants for the past forty-eight years, though some 2,500 remain in captivity. Meanwhile, the nation is struggling to accommodate the thousands in the wild, which many farmers view as the world’s largest, heaviest, and—when they get angry—most frightening pests.
Asian elephants consume some 330 pounds of plant matter a day—more than twelve times as much as a cow. Traditionally, they would wander from forest to forest, snacking on grasses, leaves, bark, roots, and stems. They need to drink at least once every twenty-four hours, and will gulp down some fifty gallons per day. Yet many Asian elephants are finding it easier—and more enjoyable—to meet their daily 70,000-calorie intake by munching on coffee crops, rice paddies, and mango trees. Sometimes, they drain water tanks or break through pipelines. And they do not always live up to their reputation as “gentle giants.” India’s wild elephants are increasingly coming into conflict with local farmers and villagers, causing property damage, financial losses, and death. Today, human-elephant conflict kills roughly 400 people and 100 elephants in the country every year.
When the forest team I was accompanying disembarked into the banana fields that night, we scanned the trees for signs of the animals. Elephants don’t see well, but they do have a highly developed sense of smell that warns them of danger. And they can communicate over distances of some two miles, using low-pitched sounds barely registered by the human ear. I felt some trepidation—after all, these elephants had been known to attack humans. Their trunks, with finger-like projection on their upper lip, allow them to communicate, pick up small objects, and bathe themselves. But these trunks also weigh about 300 pounds, contain some 40,000 muscles, and, when necessary, are powerful weapons. I had no desire to be the pachyderms’ next casualty. But I wanted to understand how they were managing, in a landscape that had shrunk and been transformed around them, to survive.
The elephants appear
You might well be wondering, meanwhile, how I ended up in a remote Indian village searching for elephants? The answer is that I didn’t plan on it. When I arrived in Nepal in December 2018, I happened to buy a pencil case that pictured three round elephants marching in a row, each cradling a lotus flower in its trunk. Not long after, I found myself purchasing a notebook for a friend that pictured the endangered Asian elephant; on the back, the notebook provided the animal’s scientific name—Elephas maximus—and offered some sobering statistics on the species. But it wasn’t until I took a thangka painting class in a quaint upstairs studio in Kathmandu, surrounded by professionals creating the Tibetan Buddhist paintings, that I realized: elephants were on my mind. Thangkas, paintings on cloth or silk appliqué, are colorful, detailed images that have long served as Buddhist teaching and devotional tools.
When given a choice to paint a Buddha, a mandala, or an elephant, what did I choose? The elephant. The teacher assisted me in painting a large white elephant in a lush landscape, an ornate blanket resting on its back. Later, I sent the painting to a friend, and when she received it, she wrote me to say that she’d felt “from the youngest of ages” that the elephant was her spirit animal.
Some six months later, I was in a village above Dharamsala, in the Himalayan foothills of northern India, working remotely on various writing projects. My intention was to go home for Christmas and then return to India and travel south to the state of Tamil Nadu. I wasn’t sure why, but something there was calling me. One afternoon, I was looking at a Google map of India, when a patch of green caught my eye. It was Koundinya Wildlife Sanctuary, an elephant sanctuary bordering Tamil Nadu in the state of Andhra Pradesh. Elephants again! I thought.
Within an hour, I received an email from a new friend, a British man in his fifties. We’d never spoken about elephants. But out of the blue, he wrote to tell me of an “unusual encounter” he’d had weeks prior when bringing a friend home from the hospital near Dharamsala. He’d been sitting in a taxi outside when an elephant, accompanied by a “gaggle of sadhus,” or holy men, passed them heading down the hill. “It’s the only elephant I’ve seen in these parts,” he wrote. “Unusually, uniquely, and sadly for any elephant I have encountered, its eyes were jaded and worn. It looked defeated, as though its spirit had been crushed.”
The elephants were calling. Apparently, I was going to Koundinya.
“The loners, they are very strong.”
Koundinya Wildlife Sanctuary is a long, thin strip of dry deciduous forest in the Eastern Ghats, a broken chain of mountains in the lower part of India. The sanctuary didn’t exist until a small herd of elephants moved there in the 1980s—possibly due to drought—from the Hosur-Dharmapuri forests of Tamil Nadu. They were the first elephants to arrive in the state of Andhra Pradesh in 200 years, and their appearance was significant, as it was one of the first recognized elephant dispersals in India. The federal government established Koundinya Wildlife Sanctuary to protect them, and the elephant population grew to as many as 100 in the late 1990s, after which it declined due to deaths, captures, and dispersals.
Elephants are not stationary animals. While all of Koundinya Wildlife Sanctuary is located within Andhra Pradesh, it sits at the tri-state junction of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, meaning that elephants are regularly moving in and out of the sanctuary and across state lines. Their population within the sanctuary is constantly shifting. A scientific research paper published in Gajah, the journal of the Asian Elephant Specialist Group, found that there were just twelve elephants in Koundinya in 2005, and concluded that it was not a “viable population for long-term conservation.” The reasons for these low numbers included the shape of the sanctuary, which is around seventy kilometers in length, but only ranges between one and fifteen kilometers in width; anthropogenic pressures created by dozens of villages and towns along its periphery; and a lack of water, shade, and grass, as well as a reduction in forest cover and preferred browsing species.
The most significant barrier to short-term conservation, however, was human-elephant conflict. When I arrived in Koundinya in February 2020, elephant deaths had recently spiked—seven had died in the past eight months. Two were females killed by male elephants in musth, a period of high testosterone in which their penises turn green and dribble urine, they become more competitive and aggressive, and—perhaps surprisingly—more attractive to females in heat. The other five were males electrocuted by low-hanging wires, transformers, or electric fences.
Madhan Mohan Reddy, the Forest Range Officer for the Palamaner Range, one of two ranges in Koundinya, took me up to a watchtower to survey the area, then home to twenty-seven elephants. A selection of his staff—men in starched brown uniforms, women in beautiful, mustard-brown saris—trailed along. As we entered the sanctuary, Mohan Reddy pointed out the ten-by-ten-foot trench the Forest Department had dug around the sanctuary’s nearly 250-kilometer border in an effort to keep the elephants contained. But such measures weren’t foolproof. Every night, the elephants emerged from roadways or broke through solar-powered electric fencing to indulge in the temptations of sugarcane fields, rice paddies, and banana crops.
At the watchtower, we gazed down into Koundinya’s long, thin valley, a perspective that resembled that of landscape paintings found in mid-range hotel rooms. “Tamil Nadu is in that direction,” Mohan Reddy explained, pointing down into the valley. “At this time of year, elephants start migrating down toward the dam.” He explained that Palamaner Range, where Koundinya’s elephants were currently located, had been split into four sections. Each of those had been divided into three or four “beats,” overseen by a beat officer. When an elephant entered the crop fields—usually at night or early in the morning as elephants are, like cats, crepuscular—farmers would call the Forest Department, which immediately deployed a group of locally-recruited elephant trackers to drive them back, using firecrackers, recorded animal noises, and other methods. This was a dangerous job, and several trackers had been injured when pushed by angry elephants, typically lone males. “The herds are very nice elephants,” Mohan Reddy said. “When we start to drive they go inside immediately. But the loners, they are very strong” and resistant, he said. As he described the situation, I recalled the description of a lone male elephant mentioned at the end of another research paper on Koundinya, published in the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society in 2009, who would call the “psychological bluffs” of elephant trackers. Something about this particular elephant—its refusal to be intimidated, its desire to take a stand—had touched me. The elephant trackers in Koundinya Wildlife Sanctuary “report that the lone bull is now quite habituated to the drives and occasionally stands its ground and flings things at them,” the report said.
When male elephants reach puberty, between eight and thirteen years of age, and unless they dominate the older male of the herd, they’re typically pushed out and must go out on their own. Sometimes, they’ll form a break-off group with females from another herd. When none are available, they’ll occasionally form a herd with other lone males. So-called “loner” males from further southwest in India can be forced into suboptimal areas on the outlying edge of elephant territory, such as Koundinya Wildlife Sanctuary.
And there, they find themselves getting into trouble.
The elephant with one tusk
In 2018, a herd of four male elephants moved up into Koundinya. One of these, a striking figure with one tusk, was known as Vinayak—so named because he resembled the Hindu elephant-headed god Ganesha, also called Vinayaka. Ganesha, popularly revered as the remover of obstacles, lost one tusk under circumstances that remain, according to mythology, somewhat unclear—when he broke it off to use it as a pen while transcribing the epic poem, the Mahabharata; in a fight with an avatar of Vishnu; or when he became angry and threw it at the moon. About 90 percent of India’s male elephants have tusks, which they use to dig for water, minerals, and roots; to protect their trunks; or to wield as weapons. Often, elephants have a dominant tusk, similar to the way humans bear a dominant hand. For Vinayak the elephant, the cause of his loss was unknown.
Vinayak, whose small herd has been visiting Koundinya for the past seven or eight years, was rather comfortable around people. He could often be found on the national highway, grazing on the fruit discarded by vendors at the end of the day. While he was a large elephant—even obese, thanks to his regular diet of crops—he was relatively good-natured at the time, and had never been known to attack.
For some time, the four male elephants resided in Koundinya, emerging to raid crops and cause nightly unrest. At some point, one left for Karnataka state. Then, in October 2019, the remaining three ventured north—perhaps in search of females; perhaps in search of food and water; perhaps in search of better forest—roughly 100 kilometers north lies Sri Venkateswara National Park, a much more habitable forest area that is home to some thirty elephants. Vinayak returned to Koundinya, but the two others were less fortunate. About halfway to the national park, as they stopped to indulge in crops near the town of Irala, they were killed by illegally laid electric cables designed to deter wild boars. The farmer, distraught and unsure of what to do, quickly buried the elephants to prevent an outcry. But their graves were too shallow, and when the carcasses began rotting, local villagers alerted Forest Department officers, who arrived to cremate the bodies.
Back in Palamaner, Vinayak, now alone, became more aggressive. He began to uproot electrical poles—successfully tearing out two of them. And his crop raiding continued to anger local farmers. “Every day, he used to come out of the forest to eat,” said Sunil Kumar Reddy, the Divisional Forest Officer for Chittoor West, which includes the Palamaner range. “Even when it was the rainy season there, and there was some sort of fodder in the forest, and water in the forest, he never used to stay in the forest. That’s why he died.”
On Jan. 21, 2020, Vinayak, who was likely in musth, approached a herd near the Tekumanda village at the Tamil Nadu border. According to local news reports, forest trackers were driving him back into the forest with drums and “weird shrieks” when he was killed by live wires dangling from an electrical pole he had uprooted. This time Vinayak had, in removing an obstacle, created the source of his own downfall.
And despite the widespread damage he’d caused since his arrival in Koundinya, Vinayak’s death was widely mourned. His unique appearance, approachable nature, and constant—if not always welcome—presence had made him famous among the villagers. Many had sympathized when he lost his herd. And now they would miss sharing stories about his antics, his regular appearances along the highway. A video taken the following morning shows them laying hands on his unmoving corpse. They reached out to stroke his side, his trunk, the cheek without a tusk.
While lone male elephants face the greatest risk of electrocution, they’re not the only ones who suffer. The other two males who’d recently died in Koundinya were with herds. And in both cases, the remaining elephants responded in a manner that was nothing short of extraordinary. After a large tusker was electrocuted by low-hanging power lines in December, the herd returned the following day to trample the crops where he’d been buried. And last July, when a two-year-old calf was killed by a transformer in the early morning hours, its mother remained until dawn—hovering over its carcass, then pacing back and forth in the distance. Local news reports stated she repeatedly attempted to lift its body from the ground. Once the calf had been given a postmortem and buried, along with traditional pujas, the Forest Department halted power supply to the area—an astute decision, as the mother returned the following night to angrily uproot the transformer that had been responsible. “This episode proves that elephants are not only wise, but they love their family and children and their emotions are immeasurable,” Mohan Reddy told reporters at the time.
“We can’t control everything.”
In recent years, the Chittoor West and Palamaner Forest Departments have taken a number of measures to reduce the conflict between elephants and villagers, and to prevent the elephants from dying. In addition to installing the trench, as well as solar powered fencing, they’ve dug elephant underpasses to discourage the animals from crossing the Bengaluru-Tirupati Highway. They’re also working with local villagers to create affordable deterrents to crop raiding—such as chili powder that’s mixed with dried cow dung and burned, or with car grease smeared onto rags. Some farmers have been convinced to adopt crops, such as mulberry, that don’t attract elephants. In addition, officials are working to improve the forest habitat, and enhance water sources within the sanctuary.
Perhaps most significantly, Kumar Reddy said that officials have been working with the electric company to raise the height of power lines, which previously sat at seven or eight feet, and to insulate transformers. And the electric company has begun cutting power to villages when the elephants draw near. “Unfortunately, we can’t control everything, because there are so many groups, and so many places that electricity can go,” Kumar Reddy said. “We can’t always predict.” As knowledge of elephant movements is key to preventing conflict, the Forest Department recently obtained the funding and government permits necessary to place radio collars on six of Koundinya’s elephants. This will allow the department to track and analyze the animals’ movements, and prevent run-ins with local villagers.
Rakesh Kalva, a Research Associate with the Wildlife Research and Conservation Society, has assisted the Forest Department in developing many of these initiatives. A biologist from Hyderabad with a background in commerce, Kalva found himself disillusioned with the world of finance. He began doing bird and dog rescues, and after obtaining his master’s degree in wildlife biology and conservation in 2014, he heard about an elephant who’d died in Koundinya, and came down to investigate. Ever since, he’s been working closely with officials to devise ways to minimize conflict and protect the elephants.
While many of these solutions are short-term, Kalva supports the proposal to establish a roughly 100-kilometer corridor for elephants residing in Koundinya to move up into Sri Venkateswara National Park—the direction in which the two adult males had been heading when they died in October. “If Koundinya is improved as a forest area it’s a good temporary retreat,” Kalva said. “I wouldn’t say the conflict would end, but it would reduce.” While this might work for the herds, however, Kalva noted that lone male elephants who’ve become reliant on crops aren’t likely to return to being forest dwellers. Some studies have suggested that male elephants prefer crops as a means to make themselves larger, and thus more competitive mates. “It’s sort of this fast food culture,” said Kalva, pointing out that these elephants have stopped walking the usual ten to twenty kilometers a day in search of food, and have lost the usual definition of a healthy forest elephant. “There’s a benefit they’re getting from the crops, but there are also a lot of risks associated with it that a herd wouldn’t take.” Three such loners now reside in Koundinya—known locally as Ramudu, Bhemudu, and a third that remains unnamed. “It’s referred to as human-elephant conflict, but it’s not really accurate to state it that way,” Kalva said, “because certain elephants cause 80 percent of the conflict.”
“But when they’re killed, they’re sad.”
One warm February evening, a couple of hours after dark, I joined Kalva and a group from the Forest Department on their usual rounds to locate the elephants and prevent crop damage. Piling into a vehicle, we ventured down the empty expanse of pavement onto dirt roads. We were bringing food that the Forest Department had prepared to a team of elephant trackers, about a dozen locals who’d been traipsing through the forests and fields for the past two days. Not long after, we located them near a banana farm, where they’d been driving a herd of around fifteen elephants. They filed by our vehicle—thin men with bright eyes, draped in colorful cloths. Several held wooden staffs. A tumult of shouting ensued—loud arguments about what was happening, how to best manage it. “Stay close to me,” Kalva advised as we stepped outside. “It can get kind of chaotic out here.”
As the Forest Department officials distributed handfuls of firecrackers to the trackers, I followed Kalva down a small trail and into the banana fields. Two farmers came by, complaining loudly about the inefficiency of the elephant trackers, before accepting a bundle of firecrackers and speeding off in another direction. One cracker exploded in the distance: it seemed that the elephants were near. Still, our flashlights revealed little but the sultry movement of banana leaves swaying in the night breeze. Soon it became clear that the herd had moved on, and we returned to the vehicle. The elephant trackers had accepted their meal, and would continue on with their challenging—and interminable—efforts to hold the elephants at bay.
“This is what happens,” Kalva said as we sped back toward Palamaner town—this time, in an effort to locate two loner males, whom somebody had called to say they’d spotted crossing the road. “We never know exactly where they are.” Arriving at the location our informer had provided, we stepped out onto the pavement and gazed into the darkness. It was around 11 p.m., and a large pond before us provided a glimmering reflection of the moon. In the sky above, Orion the hunter had taken his place among a spattering of stars. There came the sounds of crickets. And then the loud statements of the men, arguing over where the elephants might be. “They’ll find out in the morning, because the villagers whose fields they’ve raided will call to complain,” Kalva said.
By radio-collaring the elephants, the Forest Department hopes to eliminate the challenges of locating the animals and predicting their movements before it’s too late. The department received the permits in March, but Kalva said that as elephants’ body temperatures rise under sedation, radio-collaring operations are typically performed later in the year, once temperatures have cooled. Depending on the status of the elephant population and distribution of herds at the time, a collar is often placed on a dominant female in each herd, as well as some of the loner males.
Before my arrival in Koundinya, I’d stopped in Bengaluru to meet Swaminathan Shanmugavelu, a co-author of both of the previously mentioned research papers on Koundinya. Now a biologist based at Wildlife SOS, Shanmugavelu was preparing for a trip to Chhattisgarh in northern India for a radio collaring operation on a group of problematic elephants there. He flipped through images on his computer that displayed the Chhattisgarh herds standing in rice paddies, and holes in people’s houses—which he said were caused by elephants seeking a locally-made liquor. (Elephants have long enjoyed the brew from the nectar-rich mahua flower, prompting forest officials to ask locals to refrain from making the drink—with limited success.) Then, there were the pictures of villagers posing for selfies with the animals, in the manner of US tourists capitalizing on bears or bison in national parks—and often facing similar consequences. When he reached a photograph of a large male, Shanmugavelu stopped with a grin. “That’s my elephant!” he said, with something close to glee.
“What do you mean, it’s your elephant?” I asked.
“This is a big tusker, a male elephant that we’re planning to collar,” Shanmugavelu said. He went on to explain that the elephant had killed several people, and I asked if he had a name. “I’m not giving them names,” Shanmugavelu said. “Then people identify them. That’s why I put a code—this one is ME-1.” Like many biologists in India, Shanmugavelu is reluctant to make elephants easily recognizable to villagers who can then become personally invested in their capture.
In Koundinya, Kalva shared similar sentiments. “When you give them names, it’s easier for people to advocate for their removal,” he said. “People who get attached want to save them, while people who don’t like them want to kill them.” Inevitably, though, it happens—especially with easily identifiable individuals, such as Vinayak. “The villagers don’t want these elephants around, but when they’re killed, they’re sad,” Kalva said. “They’ll put flowers on the elephants, and even cry in front of the elephants.”
Typically, wild elephants will not be taken from their natural habitat unless they’ve killed humans in an area, and have shown themselves to be repeat offenders. While elephants in Koundinya have caused four to five injuries in the past eight months, there have been no human deaths in the sanctuary’s vicinity since 2015. More than a decade ago, two such problematic male elephants were forcibly removed from the forest and turned into trained elephants known as kumkis. They now reside in an elephant camp near the town of Kuppam, at the southern end of Koundinya. When necessary, the Forest Department can employ these kumkis to assist in elephant drives, and would likely do so if they were to attempt to send herds up to Sri Venkateswara National Park. “The process used to create kumkis is really brutal,” Kalva said, explaining that the elephants are placed in a small area, like a box, and poked repeatedly. “Eventually, they lose the will to live.”
As he spoke, I recalled my British friend’s description of the elephant he’d encountered near Dharamasla—the one that “looked defeated, as though its spirit had been crushed.”
“All the time on the run”
In late February 2020, delegates from eighty-two countries, party to the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals, met in Gandhinagar, India, with other experts, United Nations representatives, and national and international NGOs, for their thirteenth conference. There they made the decision to add the Asian elephant, along with six other species, to Appendix I, which provides the strictest category of protection. The Indian government’s proposal to include the Asian elephant stated that while the majority of the population lies in India, the rest is spread among other countries, several of which share borders. Under the convention—a UN cooperative agreement to conserve wild migratory species—the elephants would, at least in theory, be allowed to migrate between nations without interruption.
Ajay Desai, an elephant conservationist in India who worked on the proposal, said the measure is essential for small elephant populations along India’s border with Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar, and Bhutan. “Their populations, and the long-term viability of their populations, is entirely dependent on transborder movement,” Desai said. “If that transborder movement is cut or lost, those populations are doomed.” Asian elephants can live sixty-plus years. And while their range is much smaller than most migratory species, it can extend 600 square kilometers or more.
Desai advocates separating the issue of conservation from that of conflict management, while recognizing and addressing both concerns. The main causes of human-elephant conflict in India, he said, are habitat degradation and overabundance—which refers to an elephant population that has grown too large for its territory. “Conflict is two-way,” he said. “I need to do something inside the forest so that I can help the habitat degradation. I need to do something outside to help the people. If I don’t have that balance then nobody’s going to listen to me.” While India’s Asian elephant population is hard to measure accurately, government census numbers indicate it is stable, or even growing. The elephants, Desai said, “are doing very badly in some areas, they’re doing good in some areas.”
Still, he’s not hopeful for their future. Due to ongoing habitat destruction and forest degradation, “tomorrow’s outlook, even in the best of areas, is still grim,” he said.
For now, many biologists around the country are working to manage the conflict—including Anand Kumar, a scientist with the Nature Conservation Foundation, who leads projects at two locations in the Western Ghats. On the Valparai plateau in Tamil Nadu, home to many tea plantations, his team developed an award-winning early warning system that includes mobile phone reporting from the local population, elephant locations broadcast on the local television channel, and a system of alert lights that can be activated when elephants draw near. As a result, the number of human deaths dropped from an average of three per year from 1994 to 2002 to an average of one from 2003 to today—a difference that Kumar said affects the entire community. “It may be a very small number for many people,” he said. “But when a person loses life, the person may be a breadwinner of that family. And it may also create a lot of fear.”
In 2015, Kumar began efforts to replicate this success in another landscape—Hassan, a high-conflict area in Karnataka state. Just prior to Kumar’s arrival, the government had captured twenty-two problematic elephants—seventeen of which were taken into captivity, while five were released. “More elephants appeared, so the situation was back to square one,” Kumar said. “People were dying and there was a lot of damage to crops.” While the area experienced an average of five human deaths a year between 2010 and 2017, Kumar’s team began implementing its mobile communications early warning system. In the past two years, Kumar said, no human or elephant deaths have occurred. Still, there’s work to do in mitigating damage to coffee, rice, and other crops, he said.
Kumar emphasized that elephant captures—which usually target large, aggressive males—are not a viable solution to conflict, and actually serve to complicate the issue. In Hassan, he said, each time a male elephant is removed, the delicate relationship between elephants in the area is disrupted and two or three arrive to take its place. “It creates a vacuum there, and lots of males will try go assert themselves,” Kumar said. “And they don’t know how to behave with people. They’re all the time on the run. They walk really fast and are really aggressive because they’re really worried about themselves in an area they don’t know.” Not to mention, capture can prove devastating to elephants—particularly those confined to captivity. “Making them domestic elephants and breaking their spirit—an individual who is free-ranging in his own world, and suddenly confining that individual in a corral—is absolutely unethical,” Kumar said. “So we are neither helping elephant conservation nor solving the conflict.”
Despite a desire to preserve Asian elephants, local governments and forest departments struggle to manage the reality of their existence. In recent years, the elephants’ natural migratory patterns have been stymied not only by the continued expansion of human settlements, but also by the fact that their crop-raiding and conflict-causing tendencies mean most authorities would prefer they live elsewhere. Their presence places a constant drain on manpower, energy, and financial resources. “Nobody wants the elephants,” Kumar Reddy said. “We want the elephants to thrive as a species. But local conditions are such that we want the elephants to go inside the forest and stay there. When they come out people are angry with them, because they’re losing their livelihoods.”
The Chittoor West Forest Department receives hundreds of complaints of crop damage every year, and compensates villagers a government-mandated amount depending on the value of the crop and extent of the damage. For a heavily damaged acre of rice paddy or sugarcane, villagers receive 6,000 rupees, while for a mango tree they’ll receive 1,500, Kumar Reddy said. Still, “they’re not satisfied with the extent of compensation. We’re giving them 6,000 per acre, and they’re expecting 20,000 per acre,” he said.
And Koundinya’s elephants are exhibiting signs of dissatisfaction, as well. After years of being constantly driven from crop fields, several display indications of stress and aggression that exceed a typical response. For the past two or three years, they’ve occasionally attacked cows left tied up in fields—a highly abnormal behavior. I asked Kalva why this might be, and he posited that the elephants could have associated cattle with humans, or may be concerned that the cattle will alert humans. “They have no place to go,” Kalva said of the elephants. “They just keep moving around, and wherever they’re driven they go.” I asked if these loner males were still searching for a herd, and Kalva said this is something he hopes to discern through the radio collaring operation. “If you see a lot of haphazard movement, there’s not a fixed route that they follow, that means they’re in search,” he said. “If they’re just in one area doing the same thing every day, they just want to eat food and get by.” Finally, and with some trepidation, I asked Kalva about the lone male from the 2009 report I’d read—the one who would hurl things at the elephant trackers. In my heart of hearts, I was hoping he’d survived. “I think he may still be here,” Kalva said, referring to the third of Koundinya’s three loner males, along with Ramudu and Bhemudu. “There’s one that throws rocks and things.”
A secret happiness bloomed within me. More than a decade later, this unnamed male was still taking his stand. Still holding his ground, still uncaptured. Still refusing to be driven away.
Reprinted with permission from The Delacorte Review.