Normally considered gentle giants, elephants are increasingly coming into conflict with humans in India, where they kill around 500 people every year.
The country is home to the world’s largest population of Asian elephants, a species listed as endangered, with declining populations across its home range of 13 countries. Their forest habitats are being eroded by agriculture and infrastructure, as India’s growing population of almost 1.4 billion people expands further into wild spaces. “One of the biggest challenges in India is the fact that we have less than 5% of land set aside for wildlife, and there are millions of people who live adjacent to our protected areas or inside,” says Krithi Karanth, chief conservation scientist and executive director of the Centre for Wildlife Studies, headquartered in Bangalore, southern India. The country has over 100 national parks and around 30 elephant reserves, but many of India’s 30,000 elephants live outside these protected areas and have less and less habitat to roam in search of food. That’s leading them into increased contact with humans.
At around 10 feet tall and weighing up to five tons, an elephant eats around 330 lbs (150kg) of food per day — mostly grass, leaves and bark. But more nutritious crops like sugarcane, rice and bananas can be especially enticing. “A lot of the elephant encounters happen by chance,” says Karanth, who was recently named a “Wild Innovator” by the non-profit Wild Elements Foundation, in a new program to support environmental projects led by women worldwide. Farmers trying to protect their crops can be accidentally killed by elephants when they try to chase them away, she says. “We’ve also documented a lot of deaths where people happen to be walking home at night and they just run into elephants.” India accounts for 70-80% of all recorded human deaths due to elephants in Asia, according to Sandeep Kumar Tiwari, of the Wildlife Trust of India and the IUCN SSC Asian Elephant Specialist Group.