Where is the grey between black and white? The death of an elephant and one-sided narratives that followed
The horrific death of an elephant in Kerala and the subsequent one-sided rage has exposed how wildlife-human conflicts continue to lack nuanced narratives in the country.
“Appalled to hear about what happened in Kerala. Let's treat our animals with love and bring an end to these cowardly acts,” tweeted Indian cricket team captain Virat Kohli on Wednesday afternoon. By then, the horrendous death of a pregnant elephant in Kerala had become headline news in mainstream publications. He was just joining a long list of celebrities condemning the brutal act that occurred near the Silent Valley National Park.
Appalled to hear about what happened in Kerala. Let's treat our animals with love and bring an end to these cowardly acts. pic.twitter.com/3oIVZASpag— Virat Kohli (@imVkohli) June 3, 2020
The initial report from leading media houses said the elephant was fed a pineapple with explosives in Malappuram though they have recently corrected it to ‘ate’ and ‘Palakkad’ district after recent reports from the event.
Notable political leaders like Maneka Gandhi offered it the customary communal spin, however, highlighting how the act was a deliberate attempt to irk Hindus who worship the animal in the Muslim-dominated district of Malappuram. What followed was a planned attack on the communist-led Kerala government with “Kerela” and “Mallapuram” trending on Twitter, and the officials being asked to step down from their positions. A Change.org petition fetched more than three lakh signatures in 24 hours demanding the severest punishment for the culprits.
A broader spectrum
Leaving aside the political agenda, which certainly played a huge role in the unfortunate event getting the eyeballs, the event showcased our habit of selectively choosing issues to rage on when it comes to human-wildlife conflicts. Why is it that we cry for punishments when a tiger is beaten to death or an elephant is poisoned but usually stay silent to what is an everyday conflict with both sides suffering major losses?
“If you look at the numbers, between 2015 and 2018, more than 1700 humans and around 370 elephants have died in conflicts,” says Anoop NR, a PhD student with ATREE (Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment), who has been studying human-wildlife conflict in the adjacent district of Wayanad.
“I believe we need to keep aside emotions, and look at the topic with a socio-economic perspective. There is more than one stakeholder in this. The problem is how these incidents are reported and perceived. Instead of addressing the multi-dimensional aspects of the conflict, we continue to let our emotions drive the narrative. Tomorrow if an elephant kills a child, the people and the media will demand the animal be shot,” he adds.
Genuine, multi-disciplinary reporting, with scientific backing, is essential to mitigating conflict, according to Dr Rohini CK, who studies human-elephant conflict in Nilambur-Malappuram region.
"Correct reporting means it should cover all angles, It should include studies on root causes of conflict, and possible solutions of the issue, which will be specific for each location, by discussing with all stakeholders. In short, a scientific approach must be there which will gradually change the public and local attitude. This will improve local participation, which is essential for the conservation of wildlife and conflict management. The objective should be to ensure the report isn't biased to people or the environment. The issue as a whole should be the point of discussion by media," she says.
Poetic license and the art of reporting
“The problem really started when the NDTV journalist reported based on a Facebook post. He has the liberty to exaggerate or be poetic in his post but as a responsible journalist he/she should have verified the information before publishing it,” says a Forest Department official under the condition of anonymity.
The elephant’s death came to light on May 30 after Mohan Krishnan, a section forest officer in Mannarkkad in Palakkad district, wrote a heartfelt note on Facebook which quickly went viral. Multiple channels quoted everything in the post as actual facts which led to outrage from all corners of India.
Local channels were quick to correct the information though. In fact, what was reported proved to be largely incorrect – the incident happened in Palakkad and not Malappuram. There is no proof that the elephant ate a pineapple, according to the doctor who conducted the post-mortem. And the forest department did make a valiant effort to save the elephant.
These new findings triggered a reaction from the Malayali community who felt they had been wrongly accused by the media and the politicians. Counter social media campaigns such as #Istandwithmalappuram started trending on Twitter late Friday evening. The problem with such campaigns are that it was the opposite end of the debate, diluting the blame of the person who set up the trap, and saying the elephant was just unlucky to bite into a trap laid out for wild boars.
“Both sides of the argument have its problems. How are we sure it was not a trap for the elephant? Do elephants like pineapple? Yes. Is it commonly used as bait to trap wild boars? I’m told people use coconut pieces, meat etc for boars so that remains doubtful. It could well be that the elephant was in fact the intended target. But was there any pineapple in the first place? But we don’t know anything for sure and can only comment when we get a clearer picture,” she argues.
The forest department official had the same argument. “To say the traps weren’t set up for the elephant can also be false. And even if it were for wild boars, it is unacceptable. It is important we investigate and come to a conclusion and not be influenced by these popular stories.”
Aneesh Sankarankutty, who has been photographing elephants in the region and studying them for over a decade, says that our urge to sensationalise every topic does more damage than good when it comes to wildlife-human conflict.
“Technically speaking, how is it really different from other unnatural deaths? A train hitting a group of elephants is also human interference. An elephant falling into a well is also human-induced,” he says.
“I remember an instance in 2016 when a pregnant elephant fell head-first into a well and succumbed to the injuries. Why did this current story get more coverage than the well incident? I believe the dramatized reporting – of a person feeding a pregnant elephant with a pineapple filled with a firecracker – played a huge role. My experience tells me nobody will have the courage to feed a wild elephant directly. But not many people know this and it should be the responsibility of the journalist to tell that clearly,” he adds.
The king of the jungle
“The problem we often face is how elephants are perceived by the farmers near the forests and other humans,” says Dr Rohini. “People's perception towards wild animals, especially elephant, can be a determining factor while talking about the intensity of the conflict. For example, tribal communities have shown immense tolerance and always keep a positive attitude towards wild elephants although they are living in the midst of all these conflicts. Lifestyle, experience and exposure, along with other factors are behind this healthy relationship.
"We hear mostly about the casualties associated with wildlife damage. That exists but the other side also has to be considered. That is, about the ecological role of the elephant in sustaining forests. We know forest conservation is essential for human existence. Likewise, elephant conservation is needed for a healthy forest ecosystem. Sometimes we tend to forget this connection," she adds.
The problem, according to Anoop, isn’t as simple as shrinking forest sizes. What perhaps most wildlife reporting tends to miss out on is how advanced an animal the elephant is. They are complex mammals capable of learning quickly, which perhaps explains why herds tend to venture into agricultural lands for easy food despite resources being available in the forests. Experts believe that access to easy food, just like it is the case with monkeys, is making these animals venture much more into settlements.
“Social organisation, cognition… so many factors play a role in elephants choosing a particular landscape. Why would a female elephant venture into a farm alone when statistics show they tend to stick with the herd? It just shows the importance of studying this case more deeply so that we come to a solution to the problem” he says.
The entire Northern Kerala rainforest region comes under the Brahmagiri-Nilgiri-Eastern Ghat elephant landscape – home to the highest number of Asian elephants. But for the past few centuries, amplified during the British reign, humans have encroached many regions like Nilambur and Gudalur in this belt, thereby breaking the traditional routes of the elephants.
“Back then, elephants used to move from Silent valley in Kerala to regions in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu depending on climate, food supply etc. Now they are living in small fragments which perhaps makes elephants stray more into human settlements. Maybe we should ask if such corridors can be restored for the elephants to have free movement. That will reduce their dependence on humans,” explains Anoop.
Kerala has a large Adivasi community, especially in the same belt, who have lived in harmony with the elephants for centuries.
“We look at the conflict differently. We are the ones living in their homes. So it is important we adjust to their ways rather than trying to change them”, says Lalitha, a member of a tribal mobile unit in Naiketty (Wayanad). She belongs to the Kattunayakar tribal community and has been working closely on the mental health of Adivasis who have been displaced from their original homes inside the forest.
“Even if we see elephants while on our way to somewhere, we stop and wait, sometimes even overnight, for them to leave. We worship the animals and understand they are part of this environment so we do not believe in disturbing them,” adds Lalitha.
The Adivasi community, despite their history of coexisting with the elephants, continues to be ignored in discussions about human-wildlife conflicts, according to her.
Involving the communities
Despite the unfortunate incident, Aneesh believes Kerala has progressed when it comes to wildlife awareness. “There are these incidents now and then but my own experiences in the field tells a different story. People are far more tolerant to elephants than these incidents will make you think. And a lot of elephants have also understood that humans aren’t always dangerous as long as they are keeping away from settlements.”
The key, according to Dr Rohini, is ensuring that the communities are part of the process. The trenches and fences will only work with effective cooperation from local residents. And it is important that their participation is ensured by the forest department, conservationists and other decision-makers.
“The solar fences are quite effective in a lot of areas to keep the elephants away. However, in many instances, where the fencing doesn’t work, it is not just the government that can be blamed. People also should actively take part in ensuring these fences are functioning fine. Instead, what happens is that fences get damaged as farmers try to pass their cattle through it. Wherever there is a participatory approach, I see great progress. When the people, along with responsible authorities, are also made stakeholders to the process,” she explains.
And the media plays a big role in the mitigation. “What can bring all the stakeholders together? Media reports. But unfortunately, it continues to be one-sided and counter-productive,” adds Dr Rohini.
While environmental journalism tends to focus on shrinking forest sizes and threats to wildlife, it is important that the human side is also covered, according to Anoop. Sitting in urban spaces, one would not understand how difficult it is to live in a conflict zone.
“Yes, the elephant is a critical species and is endangered and there is no justifying unnatural deaths,” he says. “But to just talk about it from an ecological point of view isn’t correct. Technically this is happening outside the forest boundaries. It is, therefore, a social problem as well. The psychological impact of fear, the economic burden on farmers losing their crops are all not problems that we can turn a blind eye to.”
The death of the elephant and the subsequent reactions have once again shown how wildlife-human conflict reporting desperately needs to be multidisciplinary. News channels might conveniently edit their content, but the initial reports and the reactions it invoked would have pressurized the forest officials into taking rash decisions that could end up hurting their relationship with the communities.