The relationship between elephants and humans, which was earlier examined largely in the historical sociocultural context, can now be extended into the more contemporary ecological domain. Over the past 100,000 years or more, both elephants and humans have been important forces of transformation of the natural landscape, the elephant through its direct impact on the vegetation and early humans through the use of fire (which actually goes back nearly half a million years). For most of this period, the basic human-elephant relationship was that of predator and prey, with humans also falling victim to the elephant on occasion. The advent of agriculture, about 10,000 years ago, in the Old World introduced a new dimension to the interaction between elephants and people. Cultivated crops attracted the elephant's attention as sources of food, and elephant-human conflicts intensified over this resource and over space as permanent settlement and agriculture gradually spread through the elephant's habitat. At the same time, increased human use of the natural landscape for a variety of products such as wood, fruits, fodder for livestock, and so on had significant impact on the vegetation and consequently on the elephant populations. In addition, there was direct human impact on elephants—hunting for ivory and other products, such as hide and meat.
This two-way interaction—crop depredation and manslaughter by elephants and habitat transformation and elephant hunting by people—has to be placed within an analytical framework drawing on subjects as diverse as forag ing theory, landscape ecology, vegetational ecology, social behavior, population dynamics, and population genetics. In spite of extensive research on elephants, their interactions with people have received attention only in recent years. There are several questions that need to be answered satisfactorily if we are to come up with lasting solutions to elephant-human conflicts. The most basic questions are, Why do elephants raid cultivated crops? Is crop raiding merely a response to lack of natural food resources, or is it because of the lure of certain properties of the crops themselves? How do landscape attributes such as shape and degree of fragmentation influence the intensity of crop raiding? How serious is the impact of elephants on the livelihoods and lives of people? As elephants are not carnivores, why are they aggressive toward people? What are the implications of human exploitation of the natural habitat for elephants? In the final analysis, what are the effects of this interaction, including conflict-related deaths and hunting, on elephant populations?
An ecological analysis of elephant-human interaction is important if we are to devise strategies for minimizing conflict and promoting the coexistence of elephants and people across the two continents. In this chapter, I provide the ecological framework for describing elephant-human conflicts or other interactions, drawing on the few studies carried out so far in Asia and in Africa. The literature, of course, is more extensive, but in this chapter, I only draw on those aspects relevant to the ecological analysis of elephant-human interactions.
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