Raman Sukumar—the man who knows more about the Asian elephant than anyone else in the world, chanced upon his passion by accident. In a conversation with the Indian ecologist Madhav Gadgil, who was his PhD supervisor, the latter told Raman about a few skirmishes involving elephants in a few villages on the outskirts of Bengaluru. “I just took that idea and kind of ran with it,” he says.

Sukumar today is known as foremost expert on the ecology of the Asian elephant and human-wildlife contact. His PhD thesis was published as a monograph by the Cambridge University Press in 1989 and also received the Presidential award of the Chicago Zoological society. Over the years he has published a series of papers on the human-elephant conflict, and was also instrumental in establishing elephant corridors in the country.  He has also published four books on Asian elephants.

Sukumar is a professor at the the Centre for Ecological Sciences at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), where he held the chair for eight years. He was also the Chair of the Asian Elephant Specialist Group of the IUC—The World Conservation Union. 

In an interview with Fountain Ink Sukumar talks about elephant corridors, why elephants like crops, and the impact of climate change on forests. 

When did your interest in elephants and conservation start?

I grew up in a city, in Chennai and in Mumbai. My earlier interests were in technology and the space programme. Man landing on the moon was a big thing when I was growing up. I was mad about planes, and wanted to be a pilot. Or I wanted to be a space scientist.

I was fortunate that I was a resident of Adyar (in Chennai). In those days, Adyar was a delightful place to live in in terms of nature. You had the Theosophical Society, the Adyar estuary, the beach, and Guindy national park. Somehow, my interest changed between the ages of 14 and 16. I also started reading about what humans were doing to nature. I still remember Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Jane Goodall’s In the Shadow of Man, and George Schaller’s The deer and the tiger.

When I was transitioning to college, I decided that I was not going to become an engineer or a doctor or write civil services or one of those things done by middle class or upper middle class Indians. At that stage, I thought I would do something in genetics or ecology. I thought Ecology is something I should do when I am young (laughs). When one is out in the fields, and you still have the energy. Genetics is mostly lab based so I can do that even when I grow old.

So, I did a Bachelor’s and Master’s in Botany from Loyola College and Vivekananda College in Chennai. Then, I applied for a PhD at IISc and I got selected.

Your doctoral thesis was on man-elephant conflict.

Interactions… I called it man-elephant interaction. I didn’t use the word conflict at that time. But, that word got entrenched…

So how did you decide to do it?

When I joined, Madhav Gadgil set up the modern ecology programme here. In those days, we were in a department called the Centre for Theoretical Studies. Madhav had come back from Harvard with a degree in Theoretical Biology. So he started this programme, giving an evolutionary biology approach to studying ecology. I did my course work and started discussing possible topics with him. We discussed birds. One of our discussions was about why the peacock has this wonderful train of feathers—theories on sexual selection, cooperative breeding in babblers.

One day, he mentioned casually: ‘Sukumar, elephants and people are in conflict. There is conflict over agriculture.’ He had been to some forests in the south of Bangalore and he found that elephants were eating crops and he said nobody seems to have studied this.

When I heard the word elephant, I just latched onto it. I wanted to work on larger mammals. That was kind of a thrill doing it. I don’t know if the rest of it registered with me, but, I heard elephant and I just said yes.

 I just took that idea and kind of ran with it, developed some proposals and did some early surveys in the south of Bangalore in the Eastern Ghats area— Biligirirangana, Sathyamangalam, Erode, Cauvery. I did an early survey in the mid 1980s. That time, they believed there were 150 elephants in the area. It was just a month and half survey. There was nothing very scientific about it. It was just going around, talking to people, getting an assessment, talking to villagers about how many elephants are there in their area, talking to forest guards and rangers. There were probably up to 2,000 elephants in this area. It wasn’t just 150 elephants. That was a major discovery in some sense.

In August 1980, I had a chance to go to the meeting of the Asian Elephants Specialist Group of IUCN that was held in Colombo. I still remember taking a train to Chennai, getting a visa, then taking a train to Rameswaram, and then taking a ferry. It took me three or four nights to reach Colombo. In that meeting, I made a presentation that we had 2,000 elephants. They were very excited.

During those surveys, I found, the Biligirirangana was a good area where it had a medium density of elephants and it had a lot of settlements inside. It seemed like a good area where I could study both the natural ecology of the elephants as well as the conflicts, in terms of crop raiding by the elephants and so on. So, in late 1980s, I went and set up shop at a place called Hasanur in Sathyamangalam.

Elephants were raiding crops not just because there is no food in the forest. Of course, if there is no food in the forest, elephants will go out to raid crops. That’s a trivial kind of an explanation. On the other hand, the crops are tastier, they are more palatable, they are more nutritious, they have more protein, sodium, and calcium. 

Could you give an overview of that early research?

The primary area was crop-raiding by elephants, and, of course, human killings. And to some extent, what humans were doing because that’s when ivory poaching was coming up in a big way. So, I made some of the earliest estimates of how many elephants were being killed by ivory poachers, what its implications for male-female ratio is. I brought in elements of habitat fragmentation into it, I brought in nutritional differences, foraging ecology into it.

Elephants were raiding crops not just because there is no food in the forest. Of course, if there is no food in the forest, elephants will go out to raid crops. That’s a trivial kind of an explanation. On the other hand, the crops are tastier, they are more palatable, they are more nutritious, they have more protein, sodium, and calcium. I did all those measurements in those days and showed the differences with wild grasses and cultivated grasses like ragi, paddy, etc. So, what’s driving the elephants is really the nutritional difference. Therefore, when they had an easy source, why not access it?

Then, I also brought in the elements of behavioural ecology. I found out that male adult elephants were more prone to raid crops than females. I gave an evolutionary biology explanation for it, and subsequently, a lot of studies have shown it to be true. In fact, there were some doubting Thomases at that time.

The elephant society is a polygynous society—a single male can go and mate with multiple females. A male elephant has to come into musth successfully in order to be able to dominate other males and for female choice. Females usually choose males who are in musth for the purpose of mating. So, this was generally known anecdotally.

But you were the first one to find this out scientifically?

I put this together in a larger framework in terms of behavioural ecology. I proposed something called the high risk, high gain strategy. Males are more prone to indulge in risk taking behaviour. It’s very similar to humans, like young men going on motorcycles and doing all kind of dangerous activity. Because then, the potential rewards that they can get from it are greater. Some males might lose out completely, and other males who are having good intuition will come into musth. They will have more than their average number of offspring that they are able to sire.

Females by and large are not that prone to risk taking because most females will get to produce a calf every four or five years irrespective. That paper was published in Animal Behaviour. That paper has got a large number of citations. A number of people have followed up on this work in Africa and shown this to be true.

I also looked at how habitat influences crop raiding, especially in terms of fragmentation. I brought in elements of seasonal movement patterns. For instance, in Satyamangalam, I found that crop raids were absent in June to August, because the elephants were all in a different forest area.

I also looked at foraging ecology. Elephants can get twice as much food per hour by feeding on crops. The crops were more nutritious. I brought all of that into a framework, and I published a monograph that was my thesis in 1989. It was my claim to fame (laughs).

Could you give a sense of the scale of this conflict when you started studying it, and today?

In those days, there was no historical data available. We were building the baseline. What I found was that, males were sort of chronic raiders. So in many villages, round the year, you would get males coming into raid the crops. And some of the individually identified males that I know would raid the crops for up to four months in a year. On the other hand, the females generally were raiding certain seasons much more than other seasons. So I built up the baseline in terms of the frequencies at which they were raiding.

In those days, the raids were largely confined either to the periphery of the forest, or they were confined to enclaves within forest areas where cultivation took place. You didn’t get these large scale kind of output dispersal of elephants going into towns and villages all over the place.

When I did my early work, I compiled some statistics about the number of people being killed by elephants across the country.  I came up with a figure of about 150 people being killed by elephants. Now recently, the number has gone to more than 500. So the problem has tripled or even quadrupled.

But, the elephant has not lost practically an inch of ground in the south since the 1980s. If at all, it has probably gained to a certain extent. If we go to Uttarakhand and UP, there has been a certain increase in fragmentation because of highways. But the elephant has not lost much habitat there.

So between then and now what has happened is scale has increased in terms of geographical spread of the elephant. In a few cases, the elephant has lost some habitat, like in Assam or the North East.

But, the elephant has not lost practically an inch of ground in the south since the 1980s. If at all, it has probably gained to a certain extent. If we go to Uttarakhand and UP, there has been a certain increase in fragmentation because of highways. But the elephant has not lost much habitat there.

In the east, in Odisha and Jharkhand, the situation has been very dynamic due to mining. But you’ve also had elephants that are moving all over the place now. The range expansion of the elephant has been very significant. If you look at the presence of elephants in Odisha earlier, they were found in 20-odd districts. Today they’re found in almost 30 districts.

Elephants are going into areas where they have never been seen before. Yesterday, some elephants were captured in Chitradurga (Karnataka). Chitradurga is not an elephant habitat. It’s too dry to hold elephants. Elephants have gone to Tumkur (Karnataka). In the 1980s there was no question of elephants in the northern part of Tumkur. So the overall scale of the conflict or interaction has tripled or quadrupled since the 1980s.

If habitats have not really been affected, except for Assam or Odisha, what is causing this increased migration among elephants?

It’s a complex set of factors. I would like to divide this into two. One is the push factor, the other is the pull factor.

One push factor might be what’s happening inside these habitats. We still don’t fully understand what is happening. In the south for instance, we know that invasive species like Lantana has increased greatly in some areas. So that means that other forage resources have reduced. And we know that grasses have reduced in all our deciduous forests. In some of our papers we describe that.

The other push factor might be adverse climatic events. There was a big El Nino related drought in 1982. The biggest drought of the last century globally. In 1983 you had this whole clan of elephants leaving Hosur and marching up into Andhra. Those elephants never came back. We created a sanctuary for them. They seem to settle down for 15-20 years, and then they started  dispersing to Tirupathi, Ananthapur, Kadapa, etc.

One more push factor is the population increase of elephants. If you look at central India, the population has gone up. And the spillovers are the ones that are migrating. For instance, there are 250 elephants in Chhattisgarh. There are 150 elephants in South Bengal. Where are these coming from? My early population modelling had shown, elephants can increase at about 1-2 per cent year. And our national parks and sanctuaries and intact forest areas cannot sustain them.

The pull factors are that the crops are more attractive, once the animals taste crops then they are addicted to them. A lot of transformation of the landscape outside the forest area is happening. Earlier crops used to be seasonal. Today, with better irrigation, people cultivate three to four crops. In Odisha, in our recent work it’s very clearly shown. All your vegetation greening has happened much more outside the forest areas than inside the forest areas. So the habitat outside is becoming more attractive to them.

The last is something that’s very difficult to quantify. We used to historically capture elephants possibly because the enforcement of conservation laws were lax in earlier years. With stricter enforcement, elephants are less afraid of humans now, and elephants are now adapting to human-dominated areas. There’s a process of behavioural adaptation.

In your experience, how have local communities dealt with new incursions of elephant populations?

Initially, very often, like when the elephants went to Andhra, they thought Lord Ganesha has come to our state. So the people would go fall at the feet of an elephant, offer bananas and so on. This was in the 80’s. When people see wild elephants for the first time, they’re amazed. They’re bewildered. They are surprised.

But then they start finding that elephants are a nuisance. They kill people, they start raiding crops, etc.

In south Bengal, by 2015, the population that was initially 50 elephants has now become something like 150. They have killed 71 people in 2015. The Chief Minister was so furious that she said she would shut down the forest department if action was not taken.

So I think to a certain extent, there is a resignation because generally people don’t have any power. And here again there are different viewpoints. Some people believe that humans should adjust to elephants completely. But I don’t think this is tenable all over the place. People are there in a given area by accident. By historical and geographical accident.

Somebody is paying a cost for the conflict. And I don’t think we’ve paid enough attention to that, I don’t think we are addressing it from that point of view.

And elephants are also suffering. Let’s also admit that there are stories of people throwing fireballs at elephants, shooting at them, and injuring them.

To me the most surprising was that you know, 30 years ago, you would say elephants need forests to survive. Today, I say that elephants don’t need any forests to survive. You can put elephants in a totally agricultural landscape, and they’ll survive. As long as you allow them to feed or whatever they want to do.

What is the most surprising thing in all of your encounters with elephants wandering to new places?

To me the most surprising was that you know, 30 years ago, you would say elephants need forests to survive. Today, I say that elephants don’t need any forests to survive. You can put elephants in a totally agricultural landscape, and they’ll survive. As long as you allow them to feed or whatever they want to do.

Elephants are wonderfully adaptable. And so the way they are thinking about the next move and trying to outwit people is amazing. In Tumkur, you will find elephants during the daytime congregated in a big lake. All the male elephants go to the centre of the lake and stay put. By 6 p.m.,  they get back into the surrounding fields and start raiding the crops. Because people can’t do anything to the elephants in the middle of a lake which is right out there. So they come up with these wonderful adaptations.

The other surprising thing is society itself has been so tolerant. Take a place like Bengal, which is a very politically active state. 

How have intervention involving displacement of elephants worked? There are reports of elephants coming back to the place they were moved from.

We need to better understand what makes the elephants come back and what are the conditions under which the elephants are likely to remain where you you transfer them. Unfortunately that understanding is not happening because we are not scientifically investigating this. By and large, the transfers are ad hoc.

We have a hint, based on our observations. If you take a young male elephant who is looking to disperse from his family, and integrate with other elephant families not related to it. Those are the cases in which if you take an elephant and shift him out, it’s likely to succeed.

The older males are the ones that become chronic crop raiders. These guys go 50-60 km away and start raiding crops and then you capture them and put them back in the forest. They’re much more likely to go back.

 You worked on a recent survey of elephant corridors which showed that number of corridors rose from 88 to 101. What do these numbers reflect on the ground?

Corrdiors are a very complex situation. While revising them, we discovered some new corridors. We also found some of the older corridors were defunct. Or they were never corridors in the first place.

I think the term corridor is being misused and abused to a great extent. So we have stuck to our original definition, based on the science. The corridor has to have some functions. The functions are elephants are moving from one forest area to another forest area. Where they are also able to spend a substantial amount of time. It is part of the home range of the group.

But then elephants have come from Bhadra to Chitradurga. Can you call that a corridor? In the early years, the concept of a corridor was made quite fuzzy.

Like in Odisha for instance, there were corridors that were defined by some agency 20 years ago. And they were all just lines simply drawn on a map: 80 kilometres long, 100 metres wide. Which are not corridors. These are all just hypothetical lines being drawn.

On the ground, how are corridors actually being achieved?

The very first corridor was actually funded by Government of India. I had identified a corridor in Bandipur called Kanyanpura corridor. The government put an Elephant Proof Trench right along the boundary of the Bandipur National Park which constricted the movement of elephants. I identified this in 1997 that this was a problem. Very fortunately, the officers at that time realised the mistake, and then they set it right. The trench was filled up and the land was transferred to the Forest Department. In 2001, we managed to increase the width of that corridor from 15 meters to about 300 meters.

We have followed different models across the country. In some cases we have had voluntary purchase of land from people, like in the case of Thirunalli corridor in Kerala. Then, in the Garo Green Spine project in Meghalaya, there’s a corridor where the local communities have played a role. They said they will declare this a gibbon and elephant corridor.

You’ve also done considerable research in climate change. Can you talk a little bit about how you got into that?

I think my interest in climate change initially was triggered by the discovery of a dead elephant in peat bog in the upper Nilgiris in 1982. I realised that I could try to look at the past vegetation history of the area. We went there, dug pits and collected samples. And an interesting picture emerged. We know that in India, about 18,000 years ago, the world was much, much colder than it is today. I picked up that signal in the Nilgiri peat bog. That grasses were much more extensive in that time, even more than they are today. 

So, in my sample here in southern India I picked up a weakening of the monsoon about 5,000 years ago and lasting till about 2,000 years ago, A very variable kind of monsoon. It struck me, and I published a paper in Nature on this in 1993. That was my first paper on climate change.

By the time the whole issue of global warming, green house emissions had emerged. I got interested in how different forest communities are sensitive to ongoing climate change. How future climate change will impact forests of India.

I’ve been also been involved with groups on modelling climate change.  I’ve been a contributor to the IPCC between 1995 and 2007 when it received the Nobel peace prize. I am once again back on the IPCC, and started working on a special report earlier this year.

The other thing that I built up was a kind of long term forest dynamics in the Nilgiris. I set up these permanent plots in Mudumalai in the late 80s. The kind of deep insights we are having into forest dynamics and how things like inter-annual variation in rainfall plays a major role in driving the dynamics, mediated through fire, mediated through invasive species, and below-ground hydrology, etc., I think it’s fascinating. So it’s the longest and most detailed data set of it’s kind in the country.

How did you set up this observational plot?

So in 1988 and 89, I went to Mudumalai, my wife and daughter. We stayed in Masanagudi, we had a wonderful time and we had a small team of people. We would go out every day, and we identified the area and we would take umbrellas and we would take our lunch packs. We would work throughout the day. It took us about a year or two to actually set up the big plot of 50 ha. I stayed for about a year an a half in Mudumalai. I think that was one of the most enjoyable periods if you think about it. Now that I am close to formal retirement, I sort of want to go back to that life eventually.

The government announced that it’s going to set up more such observational plots? How did that come about?

In 2009, before Jairam Ramesh, I presented a slide of data from Mudumalai, with just 2 parameters—how many stems have died from one year to another year, and how many new stems have come up. Let’s say we had a PhD student who joined me in 1990 and worked till 1992. They would say that this forest is dying out, because the number of trees that are dying out is far greater than the number of new stems that are coming up. Then if a student had worked during the late 90’s , they would say this is a stable forest. And then between 2000 and 2004, there was a big mortality over here. If a student had joined me in 2004, and the student completed the PhD in 2008, they would say what a wonderful forest this is.

So I asked, which PhD thesis is right? Every PhD thesis would’ve to be thrown into the dustbin (laughs). So Jairam Ramesh looked at it and he said, ‘Yeah, Sukumar what do you want?’(laughs).

So my next slide was that we need an Indian long-term ecological observatory network. Across the country, for different biomes, you need to start picking up signals of climate change.

As with any proposal with the government, he said yes. And then the officials got in touch with me. Over a period of time, we had national level workshops, brought a large number of institutions together. It’s all done and it’s sitting right at the very edge of the finish line (laughs). I’ve not been able to actually push it over.

How many have been proposed?

Eight sites. Dal Lake catchment in Kashmir,  Uttarakhand and Himachal for Western Himalayas, Arunachal Pradesh for the North East, Sal-teak transition in Pachamarhi for central India, Nilgiris Biosphere reserve for South India, Andaman & Nicobar islands, Gujarat and Rajasthan for arid zones, and finally the mangroves of Sunderbans.

You are taking a sabbatical next year to Japan. What are you doing there?

I am working on a book on giving an ecological and sociological perspective on wildlife human conflicts.  I’ll also be a visiting professor at Kyoto University. But I’ll also come every three months or so to India. They give me a free hand to do whatever I want to do.