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



E is for “Endangered”

Or why we shouldn’t take those large odd-looking animals for granted.

E is for Endangered

Step into any nursery or play room, take a quick walk down the isles of your local bookstore or library. Or just look at the clothing and toys we surround children with. They are full of images of iconic animals – giraffes, rhinoceros, hippos, lions, elephants…

We use these animals to teach the alphabet, and cherish them as beloved characters in our story books. They adorn everything from birthday cards to blankets.

What would the world be like without them? Continue reading

How early life may influence the way elephants age

Guest post by Hannah Mumby, Myanmar Elephant Project / University of Sheffield

Elephant babies in myanmar

Elephant calves at a logging camp in Myanmar. Image courtesy of Hannah Mumby.

There are a great many reasons to study elephants; they’re endangered, highly social, quite frankly huge and hold a unique and central place in many cultures. They can also be very strong, sometimes dangerous and slow to do what you want. But that’s not enough to stop me from working on them! One of my interests is actually their life cycles. In the past I’ve studied humans and non-human primates and the fact that elephants evolved long lives, almost on a par with our own, but on a separate evolutionary trajectory was fascinating to me. Elephants also usually only have one calf at a time and each calf is dependent on its mother for many years. These characteristics allow us to test a lot of ideas underpinning theories of life history and ageing, including ones that have been primarily designed with humans in mind.

So why is this interesting? Continue reading

How does empathy help elephants?

By S. de Silva

P1490826 P1490832


A small family of elephants in Uda Walawe wanders upon a dead calf which does not belong to them. Yet they show great interest, touching and hovering over the body for hours, refusing to let any observers near until they finally decide to move off. Photos: UWERP

In the past week a paper on reassurance behavior in elephants by Plotnik et al. in PeerJ has been generating quite a bit of buzz. The study, which you can learn more about from the researchers themselves here, collected a series of observations on a group of captive elephants in Thailand documenting how they reacted when one of their companions was distressed.  It showed that when some individuals were disturbed in some way and expressed their distress, other individuals approached them and interacted in ways (such as touching, vocalizing) that suggested that they might be trying to comfort or console their companion.  Such behavior would indicate that elephants have the capacity for empathy, along with a handful of other species.

The title of this post is meant to work on at least two levels. First, we might wonder at a biological level – what is the function of the curious  behavior elephants sometimes show toward others in distress? Why might it have evolved? Whom does it benefit? Second, we might wonder at a practical level – should the capacities of elephants endow them with additional conservation value? Should it matter on the ground? So today, the first ever World Wildlife Day, I’d like to examine these two sets of questions, which are very distinct. Continue reading

Thinking like elephants

By: Lisa Barrett, Research Assistant – Think Elephants International, Inc.
Photos: Elise Gilchrist (c) 2014, Think Elephants International, Inc. www.thinkelephants.org

Plotnik3Think Science. Think Education. Think Elephants. That’s our motto at Think Elephants International (TEI), a nonprofit based in northern Thailand.  Founded by Dr. Joshua Plotnik in 2010, TEI’s aim is to conserve wild Asian elephants in Thailand by integrating elephant intelligence research with conservation education programming. We “think elephants” both because we think of elephants when we consider ways to help improve their conservation status, and we also think like elephants in designing our research paradigms. We use scientific research to understand how elephants “see” their world and how we can most effectively save their world. Dr. Plotnik has shown that elephants are both able to pass the mirror self-recognition task (Plotnik et al. 2006) and that they can cooperate together to complete a novel problem (Plotnik et al. 2011). In addition to demonstrating the amazing cognitive abilities of this species, we are also passionate about research that can directly impact conservation techniques to mitigate human-elephant conflict. Continue reading

Asian elephant imitates Korean speech

Koshik is a 12-year-old male Asian elephant housed at the Everland Zoo in South Korea.  For some years he had been a local star that was the subject of some internet fame due to his uncanny ability to produce human-like sounds.  Not only this, but they actually seemed to resemble Korean words.

In a new paper in the journal Current Biology by Angela Stoeger and colleagues, Koshik’s vocalizations were put to the test.  Could he really produce words, as trainers claimed?

The researchers recorded Koshik’s special utterances and played them back to a panel of native Korean speakers who had never heard him before. These participants did not know who was producing the sounds or what they were supposed to mean. They were then asked to write down the words they heard.  They found that Koshik’s call resembled five Korean words: ‘‘annyong’’ (hello), ‘‘anja’’ (sit down), ‘‘aniya’’ (no), ‘‘nuo’’ (lie down), and ‘‘choah’’ (good).  He appeared to be very good at reproducing the vowels in each of the words, but the consonants were more problematic.  “Choah” for instance was interpreted sometimes as “boah” (look) and “moa” (collect) by the human listeners.

Continue reading

Trackways freeze time to reveal ancient elephant sociality

An artist’s reconstruction of what the ancient herd may have looked like, here showing Stegotetrabelodon

The evolution of behavior is tricky to study for one very simple reason: behaviors usually don’t fossilize.  While anatomy can be reconstructed based on skeletal remains and imprints, how might one glimpse how a living, breathing organism behaved millions of years ago? Continue reading