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The Elephant in the Room: Overcoming Human-Elephant Conflict

21 May, 2017

  • Tata Coffee
  • human-elephant conflict
  • CII

The forests nestled among the rolling hills of the Western Ghats are home to more than just green plantations and coffee-scented air. Apart from being the centrepiece of Tata Coffee’s national plantation spread, the region also serves as one of the largest elephant biospheres in India. And yet, over the past three decades, there have been two faces that have emerged of the Western Ghats; the one you can see and the one slightly out of sight. The one you can see belongs to humanity, and the one you can’t, belongs to a clutch of precious elephants, displaced because of deforestation and climate change. As the years have unfolded, there has been a tremendous intersect between the two, causing unrest, conflict and catastrophe. To embrace the elephant population and promote habitat conservation, we have launched an array of initiatives at Tata Coffee, to bolster our quest for sustainability and create value for every stakeholder, human or animal, along our journey.

The Elephant Migration

If you were to colour a map to trace the elephant topography of the Western Ghats since the 1980s, you would see that there has been a gentle, gradual migration over the decades. In the 1980s, elephant incursions into Tata Coffee’s plantations were few and far between. Even if elephants did stray across the boundary, they would typically return to the forest by the next morning. However, with the advent of deforestation and climatic shifts, the 1990s and 2000s saw elephants routinely foraying into the plantations, with many choosing to nest there permanently. The plantations provided them with safe cocoons, compared to the uncertainty tethered to their forest habitat. By 2010, a new generation of elephants had been birthed inside the plantations. A piece of the plantations now belonged to them.

The Human-Elephant Conflict

Having set up their homes in the lap of Tata Coffee’s estate, wild elephants posed severe dangers to workers at the Tata Coffee plantations. There were several fatalities, and the possibility of attacks led to productivity loss and mental trauma among the grassroots workforce. In addition to that, the knowledge that rogue elephants could vanquish years of cultivation in seconds, threatened the overall agricultural landscape in the region. As these factors were spotlighted, a dedicated team spearheaded by A. M. Chittiappa, Head of Safety at Tata Coffee, was formed to propel a robust roadmap to protect plantations by returning elephants to their natural habitat.

The Roadmap to Combat Elephant Incursions

The elephant relocation roadmap that was followed has seen encouraging results. These are the stages that were followed.

Stage 1. Formation of Wildlife Cell

At the outset, a series of collaborations were linked with organisations including Indian Institute of Science, Pondicherry University and NGOS. In addition to these partnerships, a Wildlife Cell was established to provide a singular focus and direction for the project.

Stage 2. Clear Mapping of Conflict Zones

By geographically shading the zones that witnessed the most human-animal conflicts, the Safety Team could offer workers a safer way to navigate through the plantations.

Stage 3. Infrastructural and People Interventions

The elephant relocation roadmap was composed of a medley of infrastructural and human interventions. A slew of infrastructural upgrades was implemented: barriers such as trenches and rail track barricades were built, solar powered fences were constructed and fortified, and observatory towers were erected. Also, blind spots on roads were eradicated and jackfruit trees, which acted as lures for elephants, were eliminated entirely from plantations. As far as people interventions went, extensive training programmes were conducted, SMS and FM broadcast systems were implemented and periodic mock drills were carried out. Process automation was also effected, reducing the need for human deployment in remote parts of the plantation.

Key Measures of Success

There have been myriad emblems of progress since the beginning of this project. 113 trainings, 45,330 training hours, and 65 meetings with forest officials later, we are on the cusp of a new journey. From 827 elephant intrusions in 2013-14, to 711 in 2016-17, progress has been quantifiable and tangible. Between 2014 and 2017, nine rogue elephants have been captured from conflict hotspots and moved to elephant rescue camps. Tata Coffee has also been awarded the ‘Excellence in Work Place Safety’ trophy for its elephant conservation project, in the CII IQ National Safety Competition. Today, there are still approximately sixty elephants that continue to live in the plantations owned by Tata Coffee, and continual efforts are being made, in collaboration with government agencies, to relocate this tiny population to the forest.

The Way Forward

While the effort to shift elephants back to their natural habitat has already reaped results, the last mile of the project is still underway. Tata Coffee has added a few extra points to its roster of initiatives. An external audit team has been appointed, dialogues with government departments are being pursued and higher levels of emergency preparedness are being implemented. A bouquet of technological tools, including infrared sensors and walkie-talkies, is also being added to the project quiver. By finally having addressed the elephant in the room, our community is growing safer and stronger. The wildlife relocation project is fulfilling goals for both the business and the community.

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