Published: 29th May 2018
A Rocha India works for the peaceful coexistence of elephants and humans for 16 years
Through reserach, education programmes, volunteering and internships, A Rocha India is making sure that humans and animals coexist peacefully in and around Bannerghatta
For us, city folks, the concept of human-animal conflict is mostly something that we've come across in a Social Science textbook. We've probably read about elephants entering farmlands and causing crop damage, and about leopards scaring people and preying on domestic animals. Sometimes, even humans aren't spared. When you're living in urban jungles like Chennai and Mumbai, these are interesting news snippets to read. But once you start living near a forest or in a city like Bengaluru, which is approximately 20 km away from a national park, the problem can prove to be very real (and scary!). Do you remember the leopard spotting at VIBGYOR High in 2016?
But who do we blame for these happenings — the animals, for invading human settlements, or humans, for invading a land that was once home to several animals? So instead of assigning blame, why not teach humans and animals to peacefully coexist in their habitat, without hurting each other? If you think that this is impossible, then you haven't heard of A Rocha — an international organisation that ensures that a harmonious relationship and peaceful coexistence between humans, animals, and nature is possible through their education programmes, volunteering opportunities, and internships.
Train them right: A Rocha conducts a training session for the Zoology professors of St Joseph's College and Christ University, Bengaluru
A Rocha's only centre in India is in Bengaluru, near the Bannerghatta National Park, where the team works predominantly to end the conflict between the elephants in the National Park and the people living in the nearby villages. For 16 years, the organisation has been successful in bring down the death rates of both humans and elephants, while constantly figuring out new and different ways to make the coexistence as peaceful as possible.
Sounds interesting? We sought to find out more about these ways and secretly hoped to spot a few tuskers on the way, as we headed to A Rocha India's camp. As serene as a location can get, we were welcomed at A Rocha by Avinash Krishnan, who works as a research officer there. The campus was silent, except for the biophony of a few stray turkeys and ducks. A few minutes into the conversation, I couldn't resist myself from asking, "Where are the elephants?" "For that, you should have come later in the evening. Since these elephants aren't captives, they come here at night and drink water from these tanks on the premises," explains Avinash, as he starts tells me more about the programmes.
Number game: There are approximately 300 elephants in Bannerghatta National Park
"Our work is largely driven by research. We also work closely with the local community, who is the immediate stakeholder when it comes to these conflicts. It is a strange relationship and people like us facilitate it through workshops and education programmes," he says. Most of the employees and volunteers at A Rocha are researchers. They pose questions about the human-animal relationship and work using different techniques to get the answers.
Their research material, in the meantime, gets converted into education modules for the classes that the A Rocha members conduct for students and teachers. "We also run an independent education programme that is linked to research. Some of our volunteers help us with research, while others help us in creating education models and giving talks in schools, as part of the education programme," he says. They also conduct camps and citizen science programmes.
Avinash tells us how A Rocha's researchers maintain a database of 90 elephants in Bannerghatta, all of whom they can identify by name. "We know who is operating where and we know who causes trouble. Last year, we lost around 12 people in nearby areas due to elephant attacks. In most of these cases, it's the same four or five specific elephants," says Avinash.
We strongly believe in empowering the local community. We need to protect the environment at least for our selfish needs
Avinash Krishnan, Research Officer, A Rocha India
The issue is still pretty big, but these researchers understand the need to come up with solutions that don't cause any harm. One of those solutions was the idea of creating barriers. Avinash explains, "We've tried different barriers for elephants like setting up beehives on fences, hanging sacks dipped in tiger's urine and installing devices that create the sounds of lions and tigers. All of these seem to work for a while, mainly because elephants are social animals, but after a while, they begin to observe and overcome these boundaries.” An effective solution that the team has come up with now is to scare away the elephants by mixing tobacco and chili powder to create a strong smell. And in case nothing works, the elephants that cause trouble are captured by the Karnataka Forest Department and trained in camps.
Over the years, Avinash has observed how the awareness programme has created more tolerance among the locals. But then again, problems keep rearing their ugly head. "The issues related to real estate and land grabbing are huge. These factors are responsible for the increased human-animal conflict," says Avinash.
Gone too soon: Avinash observes how poaching has become a threat to the wild elephants and how it has wiped out a majority of tuskers today. He says that most of the tuskers have been sent to Assam or Kerala
While at A Rocha, we also meet Sagarika Phalke, another researcher who primarily takes care of the education programme alongside Avinash. For her, these camps are largely about giving the new generation a taste of what they're missing out in life. "Kids today don't have a connection to nature. There are so many other distractions. When kids attend these programmes, it is a little worrying to know that they don't quite understand the function of each member of the ecosystem. We're trying to get them interested in nature and come up with solutions to the problems of the future," she says.
We also talk to Malachi Stone, a student from UK who has been volunteering at A Rocha. On that day, he was excited about spotting an elephant. "It is very exciting. This programme helps me prepare for my Master's in Conservation," says Malachi, who is also working on barriers now.