Sreedhar Vijayakrishnan is a biologist studying wild Asian Elephant behaviour and physiology in human-use landscapes, particularly in the Anamalais of the Western Ghats. Sreedhar is someone who believes in adopting multi-disciplinary approaches involving behaviour, physiology, demography, and genetics in understanding how elephants respond to conflict with humans. He is also deeply interested in unravelling the historical and cultural aspects of human-elephant relationships in India, as practised by generations of mahouts, particularly in Kerala and as portrayed in the classical literary works of the past.

We tap into Sreedhar’s immense knowledge of the animal and learn about human-elephant conflict and what needs to be done to secure the future of this charismatic mammalian species.

A mahout and a biologist, that's particularly interesting. How has this helped you to better understand these gentle giants?

As a child, growing up, I spent most of my summer vacations with elephants and their mahouts, learning from their experiences with the animal. The days spent with the mahouts and their elephants helped me understand elephant behaviour in various contexts in captivity, their individual idiosyncrasies, and about mahout-elephant interrelationships.

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Sreedhar himself is an experienced mahout. Here, he is pictured with an elephant called Kalpana. Photograph: Aneesh Sankarankutty

My fundamental understanding of the animal's behaviour comes from this exposure to the species in captivity. Also, over the years, I've had the opportunity to interact and spend time with several elephants, and even go through thousands of elephant photographs (mostly archives), which has helped me develop precise individual identification skills in the wild. Besides, my understanding of some subtle behavioural responses in elephants and their contexts stems from my interactions with mahouts and their elephants.

Even today, I continue my close interactions with them, and it helps me discover and learn things about the species that are sometimes difficult to be observed in the wild. They, to me, are perhaps the best repositories of ancient knowledge about the species, transferred over generations, gained and fine-tuned through careful observations on the field.

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Sreedhar loves spending time with other mahouts. Here's a glimpse of an evening with the Malasar mahouts of the Anamalais. Photograph: Aneesh Sankarankutty

Today, human-elephant conflict is one of India's foremost conservation issues. What are some of the more innovative methods that have yielded results so far?

Human-Elephant Conflict (HEC) has emerged as one of the prime challenges faced by park managers, field staff, conservationists, agriculturists, and other stakeholders alike. However, mitigation of the same has also been less successful owing to various technical and logistical reasons. The success of conflict mitigation lies in understanding the problem down to the grassroots level. Techniques that have yielded results on the ground are the outcome of years of scientific enquiry into the causes of the problem and its spatiotemporal patterns.

One such technique that has proven to be successful is the early warning system in place at Valparai in the Anamalai Hills in Tamil Nadu. The fact that most human casualties and fatalities due to elephants were a result of a lack of understanding of the presence of elephants during darker hours of the day helped devise a technique to alert people about the same through personalised early warning messages. This helped people to be better prepared, resulting in a significant decrease in conflict incidents.

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A mother and calf cross a busy road in Valparai, the Anamalais, when vehicles come to a halt after a Forest Department intervention. Photograph: Sreedhar Vijayakrishnan

Over the years, community participation and cooperation have increased so tremendously that not only is there a reduction in untoward incidents, but also an improvement in the tolerance for the species.

Likewise, the paddy field fences and seasonal fences in Sri Lanka also seem to work well, owing to their periodic maintenance. It is known through studies that elephants tend to feed more on paddy that has ripened, i.e. has reached the harvest stage. So, the crop demands more protection during that period. At smaller scales, experimental temporary fences were installed closer to the harvest period and the fences were removed post-harvest, leaving the remains to the elephants. In this case, since the fences were installed for a short period of time, maintenance was also logistically possible for the local communities. Now, paddy fences are installed across farms in many parts of Sri Lanka.

Clearly, there is no single solution to this issue. So what needs to be done, and what is lacking in our efforts?

The primary issue with our larger approach towards conflict mitigation is the lack of understanding of the problem, followed by the replication of techniques that may have proven to be a success elsewhere. Conflict is extremely dynamic in nature and any attempt to mitigate the same requires site-specific analysis of the issue and appropriate improvisation of existing techniques if required.

For instance, an elephant-proof trench dug at a high rainfall area would get silted up during monsoon, making it easier for elephants to cross through. Likewise, the bee fences tried out in Africa may not work here as a result of the difference in species of bee deployed.

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Individuals from a herd named 'Stepear' move briskly from one fragment to another in Valparai. Photograph: Sreedhar Vijayakrishnan

Yet another important element that is lacking in our efforts is that there is very little initiative towards cooperative problem-solving. The forest department, in most cases, is expected not just to find and install solutions to mitigate the issue, but also to maintain it. The paddy fences in Sri Lanka, for instance, are maintained by fence monitoring committees comprising members from the local communities. Such initiatives are important to ensure the long-term sustenance of any conservation effort. Fences, to a greater extent, work well, in keeping elephants and other animals at bay, but lack of maintenance often renders them futile.

In Valparai, for instance, while the tracking team of the Nature Conservation Foundation and the Tamil Nadu Forest department do track elephants on a daily basis, information on their locations also comes from local communities. The elephant alert lights in all locations are operated by selected local representatives. Such community involvement ensures the viability of any effort.

What does the future look like for elephants in India? Are you optimistic and why?

The current rate at which elephants are getting killed as a result of conflict is alarming, and that indeed threatens their long-term survival. A decline in the tolerance level among local communities for not just elephants, but most wildlife, can drastically worsen the interface between the species and humans.

With the increasing loss of habitats and ranging of elephants outside protected areas, one needs to understand that current or even higher levels of interactions with the species could be expected to continue, and hence, it is important that we realise coexistence is perhaps the way forward, as is seen in many places. Such coexistence stories from different parts of the world offer a ray of optimism for elephant conservation in the country.

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Monica, an elderly female wild elephant, on one of her relaxed days in a tea estate in Valparai. Sreedhar fondly remembers her as 'a poster girl for coexistence'. She died a year and a half ago, of old age. Photograph: Sreedhar Vijayakrishnan

More efforts to make elephant and human lives better in anthropogenic landscapes, in terms of viable conflict-mitigating strategies can indeed ameliorate the current situation. Moreover, with historic cultural associations and religious significance, there has always existed a certain tolerance for the species and conservation efforts should also focus on improving the same. Because addressing perceived conflict can certainly help bring down the larger issue.

What advice would you like to share with our readers who have a genuine love for these animals? What can they do?

It is remarkable to note that despite all the negative interactions between elephants and humans in the country, we still have people respecting and adoring the animal. However, positive stories of human-elephant interface seldom get reported. And with the increasing use of social media, any information gets spread within seconds. In the case of elephants, social media can be a bane in terms of branding these animals as problem individuals. My concern in this regard is, without knowing the ground situation, people tend to share things widely and publicly. Like in all other fields, more scrutinisation of information available online could help not worsen existing situations.

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A herd grazing along the Sholayar river, an important riparian habitat for elephants in the Valparai plateau. Photograph: Sreedhar Vijayakrishnan

And what can the readers do? As nature enthusiasts, the readers can contribute towards raising awareness about the species and the threats they face among the larger public, media, and other stakeholders, spreading the message for coexistence, being part of population monitoring exercises, or aiding in monitoring programmes by contributing photographs and so on.

For example, over the years, our team has been able to track individual elephants with the help of photographs contributed by local stakeholders, sometimes photographers, and even tourist vehicle drivers. This also shows how animals can be tracked, especially in human-use landscapes using the most non-invasive techniques possible, avoiding the usage of radio collars or other tracking devices. They could work closely with organisations working on-ground towards elephant conservation.

Sreedhar Vijayakrishnan showcased his work at the Nature inFocus Festival, 2018. If you missed it or would like to listen to his experiences and learnings from living with elephants, here it is.