There is a charm about the forbidden that makes it unspeakably desirable.” – Mark Twain

Bangalore, India’s 3rd most populous city, is known by many metonyms. However, one doesn’t quite associate it with conflict, that too of mammoth proportions. 22 kms south of the metropolitan city lies Bannerghatta National Park (BNP), one of the smallest protected areas of the country, at 260 sq km. Positioned at the northernmost tip of the Eastern Ghats in the state of Karnataka and belonging to the Mysore Elephant Reserve, it has gained a reputation as a hotbed for human-elephant conflict (it is estimated that more than 20% of the country’s elephant population is found in the state of Karnataka). Close to 100-150 elephants are estimated to occur in BNP annually and the forest is contiguous to its south with other elephant habitats such as the North Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary (Tamil Nadu) towards its east and the Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary (Karnataka) to its west. 

A landscape view of the Bannerghatta National Park (BNP) depicting forest-farm interfaces; an intricate web of life and struggles.

Bannerghatta NP, with its proximity to Bangalore, is often misconstrued as a zoo. It is, in fact, a protected area contiguous to its south with other elephant forests of the Eastern Ghats.

The north of BNP is quintessentially peri-urban, characterised by the polarisation of developmental growth and rustic charms; further south of this protected area, agricultural settings gain prominence. It is within these regions that the issue of human-elephant conflict is gaining momentum, by bringing communities that live at the edge of the park in conflict with elephants. Approximately 150 villages abut the national park within a 5 km radius and subsistence agriculture is practiced throughout the year. About 40% of the area found outside the protected zone consists of agricultural lands, and this offers elephants a temptation too great to resist. However, peak conflict is observed to occur during October- January, which also coincides with agrarian farmers harvesting their crops. 37 different crop types suffer the onslaught of elephants during this period.

Wild elephants frequently venture into human-dominated areas in search of their daily needs. BNP is amongst the few forests of the country that share their boundary with a metropolis.

In a land where humans and elephants walk a tightrope of co-existence, it becomes necessary for us researchers to understand the ebb and flow of elephant raids, and to then look at the mitigation measures that can be put into place. Although we know that the height of conflict is reached during cropping season, there are seasonal variations in conflict that are least reported in this region.

Tracks of elephants on a ‘ready-to-cultivate’ field, an indication of strained relationships with human and animal.

Our field study centre is based in one of the conflict-prone villages of the Bannerghatta landscape – the village of Kasserguppe, which lies in the north-western boundary of the national park. The study centre is based outside the protected area network, but in a transitory zone adjoining another reserve forest. When we moved in, we expected visits from elephants, especially during cropping season, since we shared a boundary with the forest. This abutting forest patch belonged to the northernmost range of the park, where lone bulls and bull alliances have been observed quite regularly. We found elephant presence in the form of dung and pad-marks, which confirmed the movement of these animals on our campus.
 
The video below shows an old tusker and a young makhna (tuskless bull) foraging on a jackfruit tree in a farmland abutting the Bannerghatta National Park. Note presence of a tamarind tree to the left.
 

They visited us often between December and January. However, when these visits persisted even during the months of April to June (a period where all the seasonal crops are harvested), therein lay a mystery. There appeared to be no enticing crops available, as the cropping pattern in Bannerghatta is seasonal and rain-fed. The plants would have been in a vegetative stage during that time of the year. However, the presence of elephants was glaring, and something seemed to attract them to these lands.

A free-ranging bull elephant using its tusks to dislodge an electric fence, showcasing its cognitive strategies in overcoming elephant-proof barriers.

The answer lay in the lure of forbidden fruits. During March to May, fruit-bearing trees come into yield. Trees such as jackfruit (Artocarpus heterophyllus), tamarind (Tamarindus indica) and mango (Mangifera indica), which frequently dot the rural landscape and public roadways, bear fruit during this period, thereby possibly attracting elephants and causing lone bulls to move out of protected areas. To try and understand the factors that contribute towards human-elephant conflict, especially in non-cropping seasons, we carried out an assessment from May to July in the year 2015. We attempted to map the presence and distribution of these three species of trees abutting the northernmost range of the park, and the extent of damage the trees endured at the hands (or trunks) of hungry pachyderms.

It appeared to us that jackfruit was the most preferred fruit, and elephants were known to travel as far as 1 km away from the park boundary in order to gorge on them; this was followed by tamarind, and followed last (surprisingly) by the mango. One would assume that the ‘King of Fruits’, with its high palatability and sweetness, would rank highest on the raiding-buffet of an elephant; however, this didn’t appear so. The possible reason for this during our study period could have been due to unseasonal rainfall which occurred in the month of March, which led to the presence of a higher number of non-fruiting mango trees and a decreased opportunity for elephants to raid the fruiting trees. This could also indicate a fruit foraging preference in the form of taste, palatability and nutrition.

Fresh elephant dung with the remnants of undigested mango fruit, observed in a park edge village.

Since mango is considered an economic crop, farmers usually cultivate them in this landscape as plantations, whereas jackfruit and tamarind are community trees and usually found in isolation or scattered across the landscape. When you imagine a wild elephant foraging in human-dominated landscapes, the need for being inconspicuous is expected to rank high. Therefore, being in a plantation camouflaged by trees could seem like a conducive crop-raiding setting for the protection it provides. In addition, plantations offer the option of bulk feeding, with the presence of many fruiting trees versus one tree with a limited number of fruits. However, despite the odds stacked in favor of the mango, we found that scattered jackfruit trees were preferred despite the relative ease of access to food and refuge that plantations provided. We observed that mango trees located in close proximity of jackfruit and tamarind trees were damaged more than those in mango plantations. This suggests the probability of mango trees being damaged incidentally rather than being a targeted species for elephants to raid.

Both wild mango and tamarind are found in the forests of Bannerghatta, and these have been observed to be consumed by elephants. However, jackfruit, which is predominantly a cultivated tree, is found in villages and on the fringes of the protected area. We have come across mango trees in the forest with the ground around the tree littered by fallen fruits, as a result of elephants making the most of a sweet meal. We have also seen evidences of these meals, where the fruits have passed right through the poor digestive systems of these pachyderms. The signs of elephants foraging on mango in the forest have been from solitary bulls and cow groups; however, excursions into human-dominated areas for fruit and crop-raiding are predominately by male elephants. Whether we can consider foraging on mango as a location-based preference for elephants is yet to be ascertained in this region; however it does indicate that jackfruit, among the three-mentioned species, is most preferable to an elephant.

An initiative of the local forest department and NGOs on escalating concerns of human-elephant conflict and its mitigation action.

When we reviewed the number of fruiting trees damaged in comparison to the total number of fruiting trees found in the area from the study, it only comprised 4%. However, its economic value was estimated to be approximately Rs 2,81,825, warranting a need to look for solutions to mitigate conflict, even if it’s a localised phenomenon. Although this was a short study, it brought to light a few insights into understanding seasonal trends in conflict. Farmers have been practicing what may appear to be a social mitigation strategy of harvesting the fruits early, or establishing localised elephant-proof barriers such as solar fences.  This may prevent elephant raids for that fruiting period, but has limited efficacy in resolving the problem. Further research is warranted to be carried out across this landscape to gain a better understanding on how to manage elephants during non-cropping seasons, in order to empower forest managers and community stakeholders to mitigate human-elephant conflict that occurs more or less throughout the year, in this landscape. However for the time being, we will enjoy watching these enigmatic giants eat their forbidden fruits in our very own ‘Garden of Eden’.