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As forests disappear, human-elephant conflict escalates in Nepal

  • Asian elephants are responsible for destroying crops, buildings, and even injuring or killing local people in Nepal.
  • A new study argues that Nepal’s government has not done enough to help villages in elephant areas.
  • Researchers measured the willingness-to-pay of villagers in offsetting elephant damage.

Farmers in the Terai region of Nepal face jumbo threats on a day-to-day basis, resulting in damage to crop yields, destruction of their homes, and, in some cases, even a death in the family. The source of this destruction comes from a persistent and increasingly problematic pest, though also one of the world’s most beloved, charismatic mammals: the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus).

Human-elephant conflict is a significant issue for a number of Nepalese, according to a paper recently published in the Journal for Nature Conservation. Conducted in the agricultural region of Terai, the study aimed to determine the residents’ willingness to pay (WTP) to alleviate human-elephant conflict. In other words, residents were asked how much money they would agree to contribute to better address human-elephant conflict in their community.

“Our study has provided a new approach for funding to mitigate human-elephant conflict in the region by the Nepalese government,” said Dinesh Neupane, a PhD candidate at Arkansas State University and co-author of the study.

Forests and grasslands are disappearing at an ever-increasing rate to accommodate Nepal’s growing population. Land that was once critical habitat for Asian elephants, the Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris tigris) and thousands of other species has now been converted to farmland.

Though some forests remain intact and protected areas have been established, large mammals often leave their preferred habitats to search for food in human-dominated areas, sometimes leading to destruction and even human fatalities. According to Neupane, retaliatory killings of elephants occur at a rate of two per year. In short, both humans and elephants are harmed when conflict occurs.

Of all large mammals found in Nepal, the Asian elephant is the most troublesome species and is the source of the most human-wildlife conflict: the study points out that in 70 percent of cases, elephants are the culprit. In addition, the Asian elephant population declined by 50 percent in the twentieth century, according to a 2014 CITES report.

Elephants are responsible for 70% of human-wildlife conflict in Nepal. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler

Though this problem is widespread and detrimental to the safety and productivity of the residents of Nepal, the study argues that the Nepalese government has not done enough or does not have adequate financial resources to reduce conflict. Compensation for damage or casualties is often inconsistent and insufficient, according to the researchers. Based on testimonies from villagers, the study also finds that the government has failed to implement a long-term management plan that involves input from local residents.

Neupane and his colleagues interviewed 242 people, asking how they value elephant conservation, how they feel about the existing compensation system, and if they had experienced any property damage, injuries, or deaths from elephants in the past.

Based on the interviews, two-thirds of households had experienced property damage due to elephants and one-in-ten suffered an injury or death in their family due to elephants.

The survey also questioned residents about the potential establishment of a trust fund, which would require that residents pay a monthly contribution that could be pooled and used in the event of destruction by elephants. In this way, residents could potentially be more involved in decision-making and compensation improved.

The results of the study showed that 99 percent of respondents were willing to pay a monthly fee to mitigate human-elephant conflict, but only if current strategies were improved.

Willingness-to-pay increased if a person had experienced an injury themselves or a death in the family. A higher level of education also correlated with a greater willingness-to-pay, according to the study.

“When the public is aware of how elephants are managed for their conservation, it tends to improve attitudes towards mitigation techniques and thus it will help with support for conservation,” said Neupane.

Nepalese culture and history may also contribute to a high level of respect for elephants, though this has changed slightly as a result of persistent human-elephant conflict.

“Asian elephants have religious significance in South Asia, especially in Hinduism and Buddhism, where they have been worshipped as gods for thousands of years,” said Neupane. “Although elephants are seen as gods, the high esteem that wild elephants are held in has eroded as a result of human-elephant conflict and these changes are reflected in villagers’ attitudes and actions towards elephant conservation.”

Even so, there are fewer instances of elephant poaching in Nepal compared to other parts of the world such as Africa and India, which may be the result of such religious and cultural values.

Willingness to pay declined in areas where the government had already established a mitigation strategy, which the authors of the study conclude may reflect dissatisfaction with government strategies, lack of government trust, or frustration about their lack of involvement in making management decisions.

The establishment of a trust fund could greatly reduce human-elephant conflict in Nepal, according to the paper, and pooled resources for mitigation could be matched not only by the government, but also by NGOs such as World Wildlife Fund or the International Elephant Foundation. Implementing early warning systems, improving existing electric fencing and fence maintenance, and expanding the presence of connectivity corridors between protected areas could also drastically improve the lives of the people of Nepal and protect dwindling Asian elephant populations.

Citations:

CITES (2004). WWF factsheet. (13th meeting of the conference of the parties to CITES). Switzerland : Global Species Programme, WWF.

Neupane, D., Kunwar, S., Bohara, A., Risch, T., & Johnson, R. (2017). Willingness to pay for mitigating human-elephant conflict by residents of Nepal. Journal for Nature Conservation,36, 65-76. Retrieved March 7, 2017, from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1617138117300638