Human-Elephant Conflict in China: A Review of Current Management Strategies and Future Directions

By Haoqing Du, Luying Wang(Contributed equally to this work with Haoqing Du), Jing Chen and Jianing Dai

“We are terribly afraid of the elephants. They are the first-class protected animals for the nation, but not for us.”

Xishuangbanna villagers’ helplessness and fear of Asian elephants reveal the persistence of human-elephant conflict over the years.

Although the local forestry, conservation zones and governments have introduced various measures and schemes related to the warning, compensation and elephant prevention, the tension between humans and elephants has not yet been effectively eased in the short term.

It is better to understand that the effect of the measures and solutions to alleviate the human-elephant conflicts could never reach perfection when it comes to carrying out in fields. There is always a gap between expectations and actual implementation.

 Early Warning System

Photo by Luying, the door in one of the impaired households in Menga Town, Menghai County

“How can we be informed in advance! It’s always been like, we run once we see them (elephants). I remember when they arrived (in our yard) in March of this year, we all spent the first night on the roof (of the bungalow).”

Photo by Haoqing, the Asian elephant monitoring and early warning equipment on the roof

Yunnan Forestry Bureau did manage to level down the human-elephant tensions through expanding the release channels of the early warning information to the villagers, as shown in the ‘Liang Fen Yi Bao’ policy enacted 16 March this year (China Forestry News, 2019). This includes dividing the distribution areas and groups of elephants, with the principle that one area is assigned to one person and one person is responsible for one group (China Forestry News, 2019).

Prof. Deng Yun, the scientific research personnel of the Xishuangbanna Rainforest Ecosystem Research Station, argued that this monitoring and patrolling policy are achieved through a range of high-tech means, such as the Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) and the Infrared cameras. He further explained how the warning information is passed down to villagers. NetEase mail allows the pictures captured by infrared cameras telling the direction of the elephants’ journey to be in the hands of villagers within seconds, despite a 6-8 min margin of error.

However, the sayings held by villagers in Menga county at the beginning contradicts with this expected result. It is highly likely that this measure has its limitations. Since the marginal error of the paths of elephants is between 6 and 8 minutes as mentioned above, delays in information could have taken place, especially given the fact that an elephant can travel as fast as a motorcycle (told by Bao Mingwei, the elephant doctor in the Wild Elephant Valley).

The starting point of the early warning policy-Liang Fen Yi Bao, is useful in the sense that it is committed to informing the villagers to evacuate before the arrival of the elephants and take proper actions in advance to drive them away. But its inability to keep the information up to date has led to its relative ineffectiveness.

Online Source, picture captured by the infrared camera showing what is the elephant group doing

Xiao Yang, a member of staff at Guangping Management and Conservation Bureau of Xishuangbanna National Reserve, said that ‘the infrared cameras work 24 hours a day, but people don’t.’ Villagers’ safety tends to be only guaranteed as long as they enter the reserve during daytime with the help of the infrared cameras.

The staff members at the frontlines have indeed actively responded to the early warning system proposed by the government. It is the incomplete thinking of the latter in designing solutions that has weakened the system’s effectiveness. The future direction of the Yunnan Forestry Bureau may be to focus more on establishing a more comprehensive and scientific early monitoring and warning system, such as taking the timeliness of the infrared cameras and the absence of monitors at night into account.

Compensation Scheme

“An elephant’s life is more valuable than a person’s life.

Online source, the female villager receives compensation for her husband’s death

Although the current law is exploring more appropriate measures, compensations to the aggrieved party for damages inflicted by animal protection appears insufficient. According to article 19 of the Law of the People’s Republic of China on the Protection of the Wildlife, personnel casualties, losses to crops and other financial losses due to the protection of wildlife, the local government shall be responsible for compensation. However, the reality is far more complicated than the legislation blueprint. ‘We cannot compensate for each suffering’, said by former personnel from the Forestry Bureau.

In Xishuangbanna, where most human-elephant conflicts emerge, compensation appears fruitless in most cases. It is explainable that in regions where elephant-human relationship stays at the freezing point, the economy is highly likely to be unprosperous, whereby the government can ill afford compensation (郭贤明, 杨正斌,王兰新& 赵建伟,2012). Though the government pushes through several schemes spurring economic growth, Xishuangbanna is still a city with limited financial strength. Under its three jurisdictions, two of them (Menghai County and Mengla County) were listed as extreme poverty regions by the State Council, with a poverty rate of 10.7% in 2014 (CCTV News, 2020).

Aimed at providing substantial recompense, a public liability insurance compensation scheme was introduced in 2010. The government insures the villagers and transfers the compensation process to China Pacific Insurance. This initiative measurement was consolidated by the 2018 amendment of PRC’s Law on the Protection of the Wildlife, allowing the local government to urge the insurance agencies to conduct wildlife-caused damage insurance business. 

Notably, casualty compensation has increased over the years, with a maximum of 400,000 RMB for personnel death. Nevertheless, villagers still maintain a conservative attitude towards the government’s reformation. ‘Hurting the elephants means imprisonment, but elephants can kill people for 400,000 yuan’. Identical comments were constantly heard from the others.

Photo by Haoqing, Car damaged by elephant invasion in Menga County

The insurance scheme is fulfilling nowhere enough for proper compensation. 

Compensation cannot fully indemnify the damages received, for the insurance company inclines to pay far below the market price.

‘When the elephants ruin our crops, villagers usually do not seek compensation, ‘, provided by Li Wencai,’ Because the remedy does not offset your losses and time cost’. According to Li, the damage is calculated on the number of ruined crops or cultivated areas at an exceedingly low price, far below the market price. For example, compensation for rubber plantations is calculated by the number of damaged rubber trees, 20 RMB for one tree, whereas the market price is 200 RMB. 

In Menghai county, where 15 elephants visited Menga town in March and stayed in the village for about one month, leaving villagers’ houses in ruins, compensation is said to be around 30% of the total losses. This situation is also confirmed by staff from the Guangping Management and Conservation Bureau of Xishuangbanna National Reserve with a frown. ‘Claiming for full compensation under market price is almost impossible. What you can expect is 1/3 of the market price’.

Even so, only by processing through a bureaucratic system can the aggrievance possibly receive compensation, yet the claiming procedure can be lengthy and grueling. 

What is the exact procedure to claim for compensation and the loss estimate criteria? Throughout the field research, no one could give a substantial answer, even those who suffered from elephant attacks. Relevant policies promulgation, as well as the insurance contract with China Pacific Insurance are left in mist. 

Though the Forestry Bureau is in charge of compensation issues, its website only provides vague descriptions about the policy without specific claiming procedures, needless to say issues about further appeal about compensation. 

Additionally, different stakeholders hold different attitudes towards this process. A member of staff from Guangping Management and Conservation Bureau of Xishuangbanna National Reserve declared that aggrieved villagers will receive a thorough damage check and in-time compensation only via a phone call. Likewise, out-of-touch comments are not rare in the conversation with people who are safe from elephant attacks. ‘The villagers cannot be satisfied. They tend to exaggerate their losses so that they could receive more monetary indemnity’, said by a member of the Xishuangbanna Rainforest Protection Fund. 

As for the villagers, they have to face up with a much tougher reality.

Due to the insurance company’s reluctance to compensate, several seemingly unreasonable requirements were made, such as sharing the real-time-location information about the damage location with the claim adjusters. ‘The insurance company is a calculative commercial corporation, with no interest in cutting down on profits. If each aggrieved person receives a desirable amount of compensation, the company will probably go to bankruptcy.’ remarked by Li Wencai. 

The same situation also takes place in Menga town. During a recent elephant visit, almost every family suffered more or less, but no one has received compensation. The evacuation and rebuilding were self-funded. ‘The claim adjuster said that he will get our losses reported and registered. But we never heard from him ever since’, said by one villager, whose fishpond equipment and bungalow were largely destroyed by the elephants.

There are efforts from superior governments to rescue the local government from incompetence to finance compensation via subsidization. In accordance with the Forestry Bureau, the invested insurance is on the increase, from 6,600,000 RMB in 2010 to 16,750,000 in 2018, where subsidisation constitutes 10.85% (from central government) and 75% (from the provincial government) of the total amount (Yunnan Forestry Bureau, 2019). With the contribution, the financial dilemma is supposed to be removed. 

Moreover, the China Pacific Insurance alleges that the public liability insurance is running unprofitably and sometimes at a loss, which inevitably discourages the company’s willingness to undertake compensation. 

Theoretically, the more the government invests, the more compensation the aggrieved parties are supposed to benefit from the insurance. However, the reality is more complex, involving the cost-benefit analysis among parties, which distorts the policy implementation from the legislative intention. 

Elephant defensive construction 

Building up defensive fences is cost-effective and harm-free as a method to mitigate human-elephant tension, compared to the previous methods such as ditching and grid establishment, which could easily be filled in by elephants’ tusks and do harm to them respectively.

In 2017, Xiangyanqing, the relocated village, became the first experimental field. The original village lies in the core area of the conservation, where elephants intrude at a frequency of 35 to 40 times per year (Pengpai News, 2018). Under the continuous persuasion from government officials, villagers relocated from the core area and established a modern Xiangyanqing at a safer spot, on a self-funded basis. The modern village is surrounded by defensive fences, consisting of large welded pipes, with a diameter of 150 mm and a height of 2.2 m, costing 1,040,000 RMB (Pengpai News, 2018). 

Online source, defensive fences surrounding Xiangyanqing village.

The fence turns out to be a success. From its establishment in October 2017 to January 2018, the fence has prevented elephant invasion for twelve times and keeps functioning efficiently (Pengpai News, 2018). Li Wencai, an angertainment facility owner in Xiangyanqing, thinks the fence largely effectuates its protective mission “Before the fence establishment, elephants would invade the village, demolish the house, and swept all the corns. Yet after the fence has completed, elephants can only linger outside the village, so that personal security is largely guaranteed.”

Online source, paddy field stepped by the elephants

However, inherent and operational weaknesses are exposed in the implementation. As the fences only protect the residential area, people are still under risk when farming in the fields and making their lives in the mountains capped by rainforests. Elephant-caused deaths are no novel news for tea growers and rubber farmers. As for Xiangyanqing village, croplands suffer heavy losses and verge non-earning due to elephant foraging. ‘Rubber tapping? You had better beg for good luck’, joked by Li. In Xishuangbanna  that mostly relies on agriculture, elephants appear to be a nightmare for the farmers and headache for officials concerned about economic growth. 

Reasons for the insufficient allocation of defensive constructions could be multiple. One possible reason could be the local geographical situation. Fences are relatively easily built in communities where households gather but challenging when they are scattered. In Menga town, personal houses are linked with farmlands and located separately from each other, resulting in great difficulty in establishing fences.

With defensive fences surrounding the new Xiangyanqing, distancing elephants from humans, personnel casualty and property damage have been prominently reduced. Nevertheless, despite its outstanding effectiveness, this construction scheme still remains in the pilot stage. The defensive construction is a long-term project which requires constant amelioration from many sectors of society.

The tug-of-war between humans and elephants is a dilemma requiring consideration for both. Although the government-established methods have systematically alleviated the tension to a large extent, via the functioning of the early warning system, the compensation scheme and the elephant defensive constructions, its implementation is not impeccable and sometimes problematic. Tackling the implementational problem in a short period can be unrealistic, but policy decisions cannot be out-of-touch, ignoring the villagers’ benefits and pains. The achievements in elephant protection cannot erase people’s suffering, and real accomplishment is not likely to arrive with local weariness and imparity.

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