Please tell us about yourself

We don’t normally think of elephants as being a threat to human life and well-being. But in southern India, elephants can be just that. Vivek Thuppil, a recent doctoral graduate from University of California, Davis in the Animal Behavior Graduate Group, spent the last few years in the fields of southern India conducting research on crop-raiding behavior by wild Asian elephants. While crop-raiding, these wild elephants can destroy farmers’ complete harvests, and have been known to even kill them by trampling. It’s obvious why local farmers are looking for a solution.

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This is where Thuppil comes in. His research focused on finding a non-violent way to decrease, and at times totally relieve, the number of instances that farmers have to deal with the conflict that crop-raiding creates. “I study anti-predator behavior in wild Asian elephants and determine whether threatening recorded sounds could be used to mitigate crop-raiding by Asian elephants, a major form of human-elephant conflict,” shared Thuppil. He and his team have produced playbacks using inexpensive speakers that play perceived threatening recordings of tiger growls and other threatening loud sounds – which kick on once an elephant has tripped the sensor. Numerous speakers are placed around a farmer’s property, which has resulted in deterring elephants from entering the crop areas.”

How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and fascinating career?

Over two decades ago, an Indian horticulturist showed his four-year old son an Asian elephant. That encounter kindled a life-long fascination with the gentle giants in young Vivek Thuppil. “Ever since I was young, elephants have been my favourite animal,” recalls Vivek, now a freshly minted animal behavior Ph.D. graduate from University of California-Davis. “I could spend hours and hours watching them.”

“I chose UC Davis mainly due to Professor Dick Coss, who was very interested in my research interests and was willing to give me the academic freedom to pursue my own research goals,” said Thuppil. “The Animal Behavior Graduate Group is also one of the best animal behavior programs in the world.” Before that he did his B.S. in Environmental Science from Drexel University.

Tell us about your work

Sadly, human encounters with elephants can be ugly, even lethal. Surveying news of human-elephant conflicts during 2003-2009, a study counted reports of 226 human and 87 elephant deaths in Asia; India alone suffered half of these casualties1. Actual losses could be higher. Another study reported that human-elephant conflicts in India killed over 200 elephants during 2006-2011 and 400 people in 20102. Elephants were, and are still electrocuted or poisoned as retribution for the trampled houses, crops and human lives. Although estimates vary, one thing is certain: in India, human-elephant conflicts are not abating.

India’s troubles with human-elephant conflicts are not surprising. Of the 40,000 wild Asian elephants in the world, more than half of them roam India. India is also home to 1.2 billion people, many who are farmers. Such high densities of overlapping human and elephant populations spark frequent encroachment of habitats, often ending in violence.

“Crop-raiding by elephants (in India) is very common,” Vivek explained. “More elephants are killed as a result of agriculture conflict than other sources.”

In contrast, Malaysians and our estimated 3000 wild Asian elephants share a less tumultuous coexistence. Although the Malaysian Department of Wildlife and National Park received about 800 complaints of human-elephant conflicts yearly (1998-2010), annual human casualties averaged to fewer than 13. As in India, crop-raiding by elephants makes up most of the conflicts in Malaysia, but there are important differences to explain the less violent relationship.

“Human-elephant conflicts in Malaysia are very different to those in South Asia,” says Prof. Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz in an email interview. Prof Campos-Arceiz studies the management and ecology of elephants in Malaysia. “There is a predominance of rubber and oil palm plantations, compared with more intensive smallholder paddy or other crops in India.” The lower human and elephant densities in a sparse agricultural landscape reduce “opportunities for direct contact and conflict”.

Back in India, it hurts Vivek to see his favourite animal at the epicenter of fear and anger. He studied Asian elephants for an answer to resolve the conflict. “We wanted to reduce human-elephant conflicts and instances of elephants entering farms.” He focused on deterrent methods.

But how would one deter a moving mass of muscles and bones weighing more than forty sumo wrestlers? Current methods include chili-based repellents4and bee hives5. Vivek remembered reading of “a farmer who said he could stop elephants from entering his farm by playing tiger growls.” Most animals actively avoid predators; would elephants do so too?

It appears they would.

In southern India, Vivek and Richard Coss6 conducted a field experiment and showed that upon hearing playback of tiger and leopard growls, wild Asian elephants startled and later retreated. Speakers played the pre-recorded growls when elephants triggered sensors set on paths leading to farms. Interestingly, after the same initial startle, elephants reacted differently to the growls of the two predators.

“With the tiger growls, the elephants retreated silently. There was no intermediate behaviour—no trumpeting, no investigating the area,” says Vivek. “With the leopard growls, there were a lot of these behaviours. You see the elephants trying to make sense of what’s going on.” Elephants trumpet and grunt “in cases of aggression, alarm and disturbances”.

The contrasting behaviours of the elephants match the threats posed by the respective predators. In India, wild tiger diets contained elephant remains and tigers reportedly kill calves, but leopards were never found to kill elephants. Against the more menacing tiger, the elephants chose the safer option of muted retreat. “With the tiger,” Vivek explains, “The elephants don’t want to make any noise because they would be betraying their position.” Against the less dangerous leopard, the elephants stood their ground and loudly vocalized their presence, but eventually left the area too.

“Even if they can’t kill the elephants, they can hurt them. Elephants tend to shy away from confrontations.” Facing the uncertainty of predators in the dark, even the world’s largest land animal practices extra prudence.

There is more work to be done. After repeated encounters, some elephants stopped responding to growls because there was no “credible threat”. One way to overcome the elephant’s habituation is to “play the growls from multiple directions to signify a moving tiger.” Yet even if he could greatly improve his setup, Vivek emphasized that his is one of several methods available to deter elephants, and using “the more of them, the better”. The other elephant conservationists strongly agree.The study involved more than elephants. Local villagers helped with the experiment and gave feedback. “They absolutely welcomed the research,” says Vivek. “Some enterprising villagers started using the growls as an early warning system instead of having to stay up all night (to watch out for elephants).” Now, the villagers maintain a low-cost version of Vivek’s setup to deter elephants.

Human-elephant conflicts are complicated by the various stakeholders and their various priorities in various socio-economic and geographic conditions. Conservationists and policy-makers have tested many methods—from translocation of elephants to financial compensation, from changes in land use to physical barriers—and showed that a combination of methods is most effective to mitigate human-elephant conflicts.

“There is also a danger in people looking for silver bullets that ‘solve’ the problem of human-elephant conflicts,” Prof. Campos-Arceiz warns. “It has to be clear that such silver bullets don’t exist.” In our haste to make peace with the charismatic elephants, we tend to inflate expectations of any one method to unrealistic heights, and risk: the consequent disappointment would compromise future conservation efforts and investment.

“Appealing as they are,” says Prof. Campos-Arceiz of Vivek’s study, “measures like the use of growls are just one small part of a big picture management.”

Indeed, Vivek’s study is only one of many that aim to mitigate human-elephant conflicts. It is also a much welcomed contribution and proves that research of fundamental animal behaviours supports practical applications.

What do you like about your work?

This freedom allowed Thuppil to conduct research that directly supported society, one of his top priorities. In the future, Thuppil hopes to get a postdoctoral fellowship or a conservation biologist position at a zoo in order to continue his research.

Various university fellowships have also played an important role in the academic freedom that Thuppil has experienced. He has received an Animal Behavior Graduate Group Mini Fellowship, a UC Davis and Humanities Graduate Research Fellowship, the Bert and Nell Krantz International Agriculture Fellowship, and the Tracy and Ruth Storer Zoology Fellowship.

Whether he embarks on an academic postdoc or a conservation position with a zoo, Thuppil hopes to continue being a mediator of human-elephant contact. “I want to benefit both Asian elephants [an endangered species] and villagers whose lives and livelihoods are at risk due to crop-raiding behavior.”

Thuppil caught the travel bug during his research in southern India. “Travelling is my main passion. During my studies, I was also able to travel to other parts of the world like Costa Rica, Kenya, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar, and South Africa.”