When farmers and elephants compete for space

These farmers in Sri Lanka are at the interface of forest and agriculture, where most incursions by elephants occur.By Lena Coker

In Sherpur, rural Bangladesh, as the human population increases, so does the demand for the land and natural resources that the elephants need to survive. This is a story of human-animal conflict that is repeated around the globe with many species and rural communities as they struggle to find the balance for coexistence.

What is one of the most challenging areas for land managers when dealing with human-animal conflict? Multi-use landscapes. These areas must address multiple needs for humans and conservation goals. However, those needs often directly oppose each other. As wild landscapes become more fragmented and ideal habitat is degraded for many species like elephants, tigers, or monkeys, these animals push into the unprotected lands, often the multi-use landscapes that are common for subsistence rice farming in Bangladesh. When these animals have left protected lands, migrating into the areas humans are more active, their ability to thrive and continue to live becomes dependent on the local residents tolerating the animals in their space. They often use human resources such as farm crops which hurt their human counterparts’ ability to thrive and live.

In the study by Saif, et al published in 2019 [1], 243 subsistence rice farming households were interviewed by Bangla-speaking interviewers. Researchers did not request background information such as ethnicity or religion of those interviewed before the interview to prevent an unconscious bias in the interviewers. Residents asked for interviews were asked to participate in a rural livelihood survey and elephants were not mentioned explicitly to avoid response bias. The study claims that the motivations behind residents tolerating animals in their area could sorted not only into costs and benefits but further classified as intangible and tangible.

The Wildlife Tolerance Model [2] by Kansky and colleagues, proposes inner and outer components that together govern what one may call “tolerance” of wildlife. This is the conceptual framework used by Saif and colleagues for their study.

Tangible costs

Tangible costs are typically things like financial loss or infrastructure damage caused by the wildlife. These can be things like the animal eating crops, breaking fences or buildings, or even killing animals raised for food production. Compensation or crop and livestock insurance schemes are widely used by conservationists to offset these tangible costs and hopefully, promote increased tolerance in the residents who have to live with the wildlife, in this case, elephants.

Intangible costs

Intangible costs are typically things like the fear, stress, and worry caused by elephants or other wildlife and their activity. As well as sleep loss and reduced productivity as a result of night vigils to guard fields against elephants. When considering universal human needs these represent a lack of autonomy or feeling like there is no choice in one’s actions because of the situation of wildlife encroachment, a lack of safety or worrying about whether one would be injured by an elephant or other wildlife, and a lack of opportunity or spending time guarding against elephants instead of finishing productive tasks or socializing with family or friends.

Tangible benefits

Tangible benefits are often the compensations or equipment to repair damage caused by the elephants or development of social and community institutions such as schools.

Intangible Benefits

Intangible benefits are positive experiences and interactions with elephants whether with the animal itself, culturally, or through a religious capacity such as elephant’s relation to the Hindu god, Ganesh. Although it should be noted that while researchers found a cultural link to elephants for all residents, only 16.32% of respondents reported they were Koch-hindus who believe in Ganesh.


the survey data was expected to confirm that the tangible costs to their livelihoods would be the biggest influence on how tolerant the residents were of the elephants. However, intangible costs and benefits significantly influenced tolerance of elephants yet tangible costs did not significantly influence tolerance of elephants. Residents could be swayed up to 34% either more positive or negative in their responses based more on intangible factors by far than tangible ones. Residents who had faced more tangible costs were not less tolerant in general.

The multi-use landscape of Sherpur provides multiple safety nets that help protect the residents from tangible costs of sharing space with elephants. Relatives cover each other’s crop losses and provide emotional support when a family member’s rice fields are destroyed. Smaller side jobs for income can supplement loss as well, in this case logging supplemented the primary job of rice farming when needed. Common cultural beliefs also could sway opinions on elephants and their tangible costs such as in Sherpur, where damage by wildlife is viewed as God’s will. This was found to be a belief that was not tied to any particular religion of the area. This fatalistic acceptance of severe tangible costs coupled with the community sharing the economic burdens associated with tangible costs could be the reason for why tangible costs were not as influential.

This study found that there are benefits and costs to the cohabitation of humans and elephants. For residents of Sherpur, the authors of this study suggested employing youth teams to guard the fields, allowing farmers to focus on farming and relieve the effects of stress, inadequate sleep, and loss of time to socialize which would drastically help the intangible costs effecting residents and their tolerance of elephants. More research to find a way to increase tolerance, reduce in costs to both elephants and residents, and ways to increase benefits to both species needs to be done but this study gives an indication of where to start.


  1. Saif, O., Kansky, R., Palash, A., Kidd, M., Knight, A. T. (2019). Costs of coexistence: understanding the drivers of tolerance towards Asian elephants Elephas maximus in rural Bangladesh. Oryx, 1-9
  2. Kansky, R., Kidd, M. & Knight, A.T. (2016) A wildlife tolerance model and case study for understanding human wildlife conflicts. Biological Conservation, 201, 137–145



Can Incense Sticks Help Protect Crops from Elephants?

By Salik Ansar

Pradeep’s father along with Pradeep’s wife and daughter, welcoming us to their farm.

Almost every other day we read about some “human-elephant” conflict in the local Sri Lankan newspapers. Some claimed that 2019 has seen the most deaths of elephants, due to human elephant conflicts. The government resorted to the dubious strategy of handing out guns to the Civil Defense Force and wildlife officers in order to control the problem. Through-out the passage of time, humanity has never been great at making moral judgements. Lack of government regulations, rightful laws, proper economical structure and even cultural knowledge, the humans and elephants become victims of this shortfall. Sadly, without proper regulations and monitoring, the human-elephant conflict will only increase in Sri Lanka.

Meanwhile conservationists are also busy finding ways to reduce the suffering from either of the two sides – the Elephants or the Humans. Continue reading

Day 3 – Wrapping Up the 2019 Cohort

Lighting the oil lamp at Samagi preschool.

Our first stop was Samagi preschool, where we were pleased to see a very large contingent of parents attending. Together with the teachers, we took turns lighting a tall brass oil lamp, a traditional symbol of good fortune and prosperity in Sri Lanka. We were a bit nervous when they tried to hand the kids a match, but then it was decided it might not be quite such a good idea! Continue reading

Preschools Day 2: Or, how toilets can also be bridges!

New slide at Nirmala Sigithi preschool.

The second day we were accompanied by a hard-working (and long-suffering) wildlife officer named Naveen. Not only was it an opportunity for us to meet the parents, but it was a rare chance for dialogue between the community and wildlife personnel, with whom there tends to be a strained relationship in areas where there are conflicts with elephants. Continue reading

Coexistence Project Preschools: Day 1


Children dressed in their finery for the year-end school concert at Chuti Tharu preschool go for a spin on the merry-go-round sponsored by the Coexistence Project.

We supported 12 pre-schools in 2019 as part of the Coexistence Project thanks to contributions from individual sponsors and the US Fish & Wildlife Asian elephant conservation funds. We visited each of the schools toward the end of the year to take stock of what was done and meet the parents of the children. We were also invited to attend the school play and other festivities, where we distributed small packs of school supplies for the kids.

The teachers universally appreciated that we had asked them to decide what was most needed in their pre-schools rather than doing so our ourselves, and the smooth process for receiving the assistance they had been promised. A series of posts this week and next provide a run-down of the improvements made at each school and our experiences at them; photos were taken with their permission to post. Continue reading

Why We Study The Asian Elephant

Guest post by Drs. Priya Davidar & Jean-Philippe Puyravaud, Sigur Nature Trust
All photos courtesy of Drs. Davidar & Puyravaud

During the 2017 drought in Tamil Nadu, up to 25 elephants per day were coming to drink water in our water tank.

We were trained as plant ecologists but have made the decision of venturing into research on the Asian elephant. The reasons are two-fold: first, we have a lot of respect and affection for this animal, second is our concern about the demonization of the elephant by the media where it is held responsible for intentionally causing ‘conflicts’ that harm human interests and cause loss of human lives (1). Although the destruction of its habitat, increasing human density and expansion into forest areas are routinely mentioned in most publications, interventions to arrest the loss of habitat and population connectivity is rarely considered a mitigation issue. The human-elephant ‘conflict’ (HEC) mitigation however is given a high priority for funding agencies and research (2,3), although its not clear how successful these efforts have been. Our ultimate reason to get involved in conservation biology however is somehow self-centered. If people don’t learn now to live in harmony with nature, including elephants, then our civilization will alter the biosphere to such an extent that humanity itself will suffer. To us, this is an unacceptable but possible outcome that we attempt to fight. Continue reading

Old Acquaintances

By SdS

Join us for An Evening With Elephants at EVE Encinitas on November 2nd, 5-7:30pm for a special in-person event to learn more!

A page from our original ID catalogue from 2005, with a female ID’d as [047] on top.

[047] 2008

[047] in 2008.

When I was starting the project in 2005, learning to recognize individual elephants was tricky. Building the photo catalogue was laborious, we went through videos frame by frame trying to distinguish an ear flap here, a tiny hole there. But even then, there were a some who looked so unique that it was enough to see them once – they were difficult to forget. Continue reading