Iris Berger, a PhD student in Conservation Science at the University of Cambridge, talks about the second season of her field research in India. For her accounts on the first season and background to her work read Reconciling Agriculture with Biodiversity – Part I and Part 2 on the Leica Nature Blog.
Last year, my field research on the cashew pollinator community and their benefit to nut yield was impacted by unseasonal rains and the associated spread of a fungus. This year I encountered a somewhat bigger problem – elephants!
My hopes of encountering any charismatic megafauna during fieldwork were low. Even in rainforests that are home to high densities of species such as tigers, leopards, and elephants, the chances of seeing them are slim given their elusive nature. However, their presence would nonetheless have left marks on the forest, from faeces to scratch marks to uprooted trees. The fact that we never encountered any is due to the sad truth that the northern Eastern Ghats – the forested mountains I am working in – are largely devoid of these species. In contrast to its ‘sister’ ecosystem, the Western Ghats, the forests here have received minimal attention by conservationists and poor governance has not only led to a decline in forest cover, but also that the remaining forests are largely empty. I have spent countless nights talking (over a gourd cup of palm wine) to tribal communities about the sobering changes they have seen over the past 30 years. The only reminder that tigers once roamed through their village is a clay imitation with flaking off colours above the toilet shed.
As in most parts of the world, it is mainly the local (often most impoverished) communities that bear the cost of conservation, but it is the unsustainable, growth-orientated economic system that represents the root cause of biodiversity loss. Systemic change at the global level is clearly urgently needed, but this must be coupled with local actions of unprecedented ambition that promote lasting human-wildlife coexistence. My research on cashew pollination highlights how humans directly benefit from biodiversity, but nature obviously also provides ‘dis-services’, with some of the most iconic species inflicting untold damage on peoples’ lives and livelihoods.
My encounter with elephants on one of the cashew farms was a big surprise. We arrived in the evening to the usual smell of tamarind curry and incense, but the excited conversations over-toning the evening prayer suggested that something else was going on. The day before, for the first time ever, a group of six elephants was seen near this tribal village. The next morning, we went to look for them (partly to know where they are so we wouldn’t get surprised during our surveys and partly because we wanted to see these beautiful animals). We first saw their signs – dung and uprooted banana plants – followed by trumpeting and an elephant running past us 100 metres away amidst the cashew trunks (which increasingly looked like elephant legs). Encountering an elephant on foot is an entirely different experience than being in a safari vehicle – their presence felt much more real and all-encompassing, leaving me simultaneously hyper-alert as well mesmerised.
The reason for their sudden appearance in this village is tragic and a classic example of how greed and corruption by the powerful is destroying biodiversity and peoples’ livelihoods: the elephants were driven out of their forest in the neighbouring state Odisha due to new mining activities.
We visited the village again two weeks later and the human-elephant conflict had clearly intensified. Cashew trees were damaged, farmers were digging through elephant dung to collect undigested nuts, and the elephants had become more aggressive (partly due to the villagers getting too close and being too loud near the elephants). The local wildlife department had no capacity to ameliorate the conflict nor adequately compensate the farmers for the losses incurred. Nonetheless, people were fascinated by the elephants. Every day at dusk, people from nearby towns and villages would gather to see the elephants, which to many people represented Ganesh (the elephant-faced Hindu god). The elephants had become an integral part of the villagers’ lives and during my last morning the elephants were browsing on mango trees right outside the village. Some of them were so relaxed that they lay down to sleep around 30 metres away from us.
Tragically, a few days before I finished my fieldwork, I received a call that four out of the six elephants had died. Farmers use electricity for their water pumps in the rice fields and the elephants got electrocuted by a poorly maintained, possibly illegally installed, wire. It felt so immensely preventable.
Despite all this, I am optimistic that things can change for the better. There are countless examples from across India where human-wildlife coexistence has been achieved and protected areas are well-managed. Whilst the population of large mammals has plummeted in the Eastern Ghats, I am hopeful that they can recover over the next three decades. Zero-budget natural farming (ZBNF; the farming practice I am studying) is currently one of the biggest experiments in agroecology in the world – in a state that used to have one of the highest uses of agrochemicals in India. If the same level of ambition and coordination was applied to nature conservation, then it would be possible to bend the curve of biodiversity loss in Andhra Pradesh. With a large population of tribal people and little (eco)tourism, innovative and community-led solutions (coupled with effective governance) will be needed to drive lasting change.
“I was highly impressed by the accuracy, battery life, and low weight of the rangefinder. It was a super important piece of kit for my research: I used it to estimate the distance between myself and a given bird. The detectability of a bird is influenced by habitat type and how far away the bird is from me. I needed to account for these differences in detectability to accurately estimate the density of different bird species in different habitats. This information then feeds into land-use and management plans that should help with the conservation of birds in this region.”