Crop depredation by elephants

Depredation of cultivated crops by elephants is widespread in both Africa and Asia. It occurs to varying extent practically throughout the distributional range of the animals, in different climatic regimes and habitat types, on a variety of crops under different land uses and human densities, and under conditions of low to high elephant densities.

Elephants, or other wildlife for that matter, have undoubtedly damaged crops ever since the advent of agriculture. I have referred to ancient Indian elephant lore (the Gajasastra), which speaks of serious conflict between elephants and agricultural communities as early as the fifth or sixth century b.c. (chapter 2). In more recent times, there are extensive, although scattered, records of crop depredation and the consequent policy of elephant control by European colonial rulers in Africa and Asia during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In British East Africa, the available records suggest that tens of thousands of elephants were shot in control measures. Elephant hunts were also common in other European colonies. Even in British India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka), where elephant capture was the preferred mode of control, thousands of elephants were killed by colonial hunters. These historical records of crop depredation and elephant control unfortunately have yet to be brought together systematically in the literature. Such records would serve as useful background for understanding the nature of elephant-human conflict and the historical progression of the demise of elephant populations on localized scales.

The issue of crop depredation by elephants received little attention in the early research investigations of African elephants. Either there was a passing mention of the problem or the assessments of damage to agricultural crops were confined to internal reports of the wildlife management agencies. Even James Allaway's doctoral study of elephant-human conflict in newly opened agricultural areas along the Tana River in Kenya during the late 1970s was, in his own words, "more descriptive than analytical." The early reports from Asia also were mostly on the economic dimensions of conflict. J. Mishra provided one of the first published reports of loss to maize and paddy crops due to elephant depredation in Bihar, India. Robert Olivier's doctoral dissertation of 1978 provided a brief account of elephant damage to oil palm and rubber in peninsular Malaysia. The first detailed account of the economics of crop loss and methods to keep elephants out of commercial oil palm and rubber plantations in Malaysia came from James Blair, G. G. Boon, and Nache Noor in 1979.

When I began my doctoral research in the 1980s in the Biligirirangans of southern India, I realized that these earlier accounts of crop raiding by elephants did not provide an ecological analysis of the issue. Therefore, I attempted to provide the basic ecological framework for understanding crop raiding and other elephant-human interactions in my dissertation of 1985. Since then, several studies in Asia and in Africa have taken this process forward; the most notable of these is Richard Hoare's study of elephant-human conflict in Zimbabwe.

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