Elephants are perhaps one of the most familiar pachyderms to children attending elementary schools. E for Elephant is used quite often to teach children the sounds of the letters of the English alphabet. Scientifically named Elephus maximus, the Asian elephant is Asia’s largest living megaherbivore that shares deep bonds with some of Asia’s most amazing faiths and cultural practices.

In Buddhism, the elephant is portrayed as an important figure often revered as a form of the Buddha. Elephant comprises one of the seven precious possessions that signify strength and power. In Hindu culture, the elephant is revered as the symbol of Lord Ganesha, lovingly called Ganpati Bappa, the god of luck and fortune.  In the Chinese concept of feng shui elephants are considered as representation of wisdom, protection, strength and good luck.

Physically, Asian elephant is very distinct from the African Elephant. Three perceptible features  distinguish the two elephants: (1) African elephants have larger ears. (2) the head of the African elephant is rounded while the Asian elephant has a twin domed head. (3) Both male and female African elephants have tusks while only male Asian elephants have tusks. Size-wise, the Asian elephant is much smaller than its African cousin. Historically, Asian elephants are said to have existed in the whole of Asia. Today, their habitat range has shrunk to 13 countries: Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam.

While elephants hold a special place in Asian belief and culture, they were also captured, trained and used for work. In olden days, the royalties of India and Southeast Asian nations used elephants for riding, hunting and war.  Today, most captive elephants are used in the tourism and entertainment industry.

In Bhutan, Asian elephants inhabit the entire southern belt from elevations as low as 100m to above 2000m. An interesting point to note is the abundance of elephant population in Gelephu not very long ago. Dasho Paljor J. Dorji, Bhutan’s conservationist extraordinaire, in his article on Asian Elephants in Bhutan (Proceedings of BES, Journal of Bhutan Ecological Society, Issue 1, 2014) recounts: “The elephant  population of Gaylegphug used to be so large that the area was once known as Hatisar meaning The Land of Elephants, sadly, many of the forests in this area have disappeared and continue to disappear and along with them, much of the elephant population”. The national elephant survey of 2017 estimates 678 elephants in Bhutan. Elephants are listed under the Schedule I of Forest and Nature Conservation Act of Bhutan 1995 and are thereby accorded maximum legal protection.

As much as elephants draw fascination in our minds, threats to the survival of these large mammals are eminent. Habitat degradation, habitat fragmentation and loss, poaching and illegal trade, retaliatory killing and accidental deaths, and transmission of zoonotic diseases are some of the prevailing threats. While poaching, illegal trade and retaliatory killing is not reported from Bhutan, due to the porous international border and existence of illegal trade of elephant parts in the region, poaching remains a constant threat. Most elephants migrate seasonally to neighbouring India and are mostly observed in Bhutan during the growing seasons of major crops. During the lean seasons, elephant sightings are rare. The movement patterns of elephants in Bhutan are not known and understating such patterns could help understand and mitigate Human-Elephant Conflict (HEC). Elephants moving to India also means more threats to them due to retaliatory killing and from poaching.

On the contrary habitat degradation, habitat loss and habitat fragmentation are of grave concern as elephants are confined to the limited southern plains and foothills adjoining the plains of India. Expansion of development activities, infrastructure development and extension of urban spaces have caused habitat fragmentation. This shrinking habitat and foraging space have forced elephants to move into the proximity of human settlement in search for food. The most unwanted outcome of this has been the HEC.

Reports of elephant attacks in southern Bhutan have been on the rise recently. This year alone, there were over five HEC reports in Kuensel and many unreported cases that go unnoticed. One of the most disturbing recent news was an elephant trampling a man to death near the Gelephu airport in August. Few weeks ago, Kuensel reported a woman in Dzomlingthang, Gelephu being severely injured by an elephant attack. The much-revered elephant has turned into a beast of fear for people residing or travelling near forest fringes. It is evident that HEC is on the rise and the most logical reason points to competition for space. The threat to human life is prominent where HEC is severe and taking a stand as conservationists is often a subject of ridicule in the eyes of the affected community. But it is also important to know the root cause of the conflict. It is essential to understand the movement ecology of elephants, their migratory routes and behaviour. Forestry staff in the area have been advocating the people to avoid walking during dawn, dusk and late nights in the areas frequented by the elephants.

WWF-Bhutan has ventured into addressing this problem in Sarpang.  Sarpang is one of the southern dzongkhags affected by HEC and the three gewogs of Gelephu, Samtenling and Shompangkha were identified as HEC hotspots. In collaboration with Sarpang Forest Division, WWF-Bhutan implemented HEC mitigation initiative to reduce the severity of HEC  in Gelephu, Samtenling and Shompangkha community using SAFE System approach. SAFE System is a holistic result-focused tool that delivers through five strategic outcomes: safe person, safe wildlife, safe habitat, safe asset and effective monitoring complemented by six conflict management elements: policy, prevention, mitigation, understanding the conflict, response and monitoring. The important criterion for this approach is the need to account all the six elements in HEC project sites without implementing a single element in isolation.

The primary means of livelihood of communities in the three gewogs are farming, growing cash crops and livestock rearing. Elephants have been a menace in these areas damaging crops, water tanks, pipelines and shelters creating fear among the farmers. To ascertain the extent of conflict in the area and to help develop conflict mitigation strategy, a rapid assessment of HEC in the project sites were carried out. While individual results of the three project sites showed slight variation, the overall SAFE baseline results obtained through HEC rapid assessment in the three gewogs showed that wildlife and people are safer than habitat and asset. Based on the findings, a SAFE System Strategy was developed to ensure all the six elements of conflict management are addressed. Implementation of the HEC Strategy will determine the effectiveness of the approach in mitigation of HEC in the three gewogs of Sarpang.  The challenge is huge, but a step has been taken to manage  HEC.

Over the years, the government implemented a few HEC management measures to prevent crop loss and community resentment. The most well-known and sought after being electric fencing. While electric fences appear to prevent elephants from raiding crops, it is a short-term measure. It is more of shifting the problem to another place where there is no electric fencing.

Assessing elephant population and their habitat range, studying their migratory patterns, behaviour and traditional routes, understanding their ecological requirements,  foraging sites and social carrying capacity sites are some of the vital areas of study to understand the root cause of HEC. While national endeavour to address HEC is growing and measures explored, habitat fragmentation and habitat loss is a serious cause of displacement of elephants into areas near human habitation. The effective management of HEC calls for long-term and large-scale spatial integrated interventions engaging with a wide group of stakeholders who are bound by a shared purpose. Sustainable long-term financing is equally crucial to sustaining this sort of action.

The southern belt that harbours Bhutan’s elephant population has proximity to the international border with India. Historically, this area has been home to Asian elephants. Maintaining good elephant habitat along this belt is detrimental to the survival of Asian elephants in the region. With growing human population and development activities on the rise, this can only be possible through transboundary elephant conservation initiatives. The most promising alternative to address this is to strengthen the transboundary collaboration between India and Bhutan along the southern border and secure an elephant corridor to provide an adequate home range for the survival of the elephants and  reduce HEC. Elephants would then continue to remain as a species of reverence rather than a beast of abhorrence.


Contributed by 

Tandin Wangdi and Wildlife Conservation Team, WWF-Bhutan