BOGOR, Indonesia (26 July, 2011)_ Elephants foraging for food in the forests of southern India have taken to feasting on coffee berries as increasing tracts of privately controlled forest areas are being overtaken by expanding coffee estates, says a new study.
If this new behaviour spreads through the 9,000-strong Asian elephant population currently living in Kodagu (Karnataka State), one of the world’s largest contiguous population of Asian elephants, it will compound an already severe conflict situation between landholders and the elephants destroying their valuable coffee crops.
Over the past 20 years, liberalization of the coffee sector in India and a rise in the global demand for coffee has seen almost all privately controlled forested areas converted into coffee plantations. The district of Kodagu currently produces 2 percent of the world’s coffee and satellite images show the area under coffee cultivation has doubled over the last 30 years, with coffee estates now making up about one-third of the total land area.
The study, conducted by the French Institute of Pondicherry, the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), and the Centre de coopération internationale en recherche agronomique pour le développement (CIRAD), describes the changes in elephant behaviour and diet as coffee plantations continue to multiply.
As elephants travel along the forest paths that presently make up one-third of Kodagu district’s land area, they have begun to opportunistically forage on ripe coffee berries in adjoining coffee plantations, seemingly favoring the food resources in the coffee plantations over those found in the forests.
The study found that the state controlled teak plantations do not provide adequate fodder according to local stakeholders, and the surrounding natural forests often lack sufficient water during dry months. Jackfruits and mangoes are abundant in the well-irrigated coffee plantations, making them very attractive to travelling elephants.
The combined data from the interviews and documented reports show an intensification of the crop damage caused by elephants toward the end of the 12-year study period. Examination of administrative data between 1996 and 2007 revealed that conflicts between people and elephants have been on the rise as coffee plantations overtake the landscape, with at least 55 people in the last 15 years killed by elephants.
“Past strategies for keeping elephants out of the plantations, such as electric fences and elephant-proof trenches, have obviously not been effective,” says Claude Garcia, a co-author of the study recently published in Environmental Management, “And it’s the local communities and the rural poor that end up bearing the brunt of these conflicts.”
And it seems the elephants are going to greater lengths to get their coffee fix. Two years after the data was collected, a farmer reported for the first time that elephants had targeted bags of recently harvested coffee berries, instead of going after the berries still in the bushes.
However this new behavior could create unforeseen opportunities. Coffee growers could create an elephant-friendly coffee label that would attract the interest of western consumers,” said Garcia.
While it is not clear whether the new eating habits are confined to a few individual elephants, the data underscores an urgency to develop new solutions that will both safeguard the forests that support the endangered Asian elephants as well as the plantations that grow the principal cash crop on which Kodagu’s local communities depend for their livelihoods.
P. Bal, C. D. Nath, K. M. Nanaya, C. G. Kushalappa and C. Garcia (2011) Elephants Also Like Coffee: Trends and Drivers of Human–Elephant Conflicts in Coffee Agroforestry Landscapes of Kodagu, Western Ghats, India. Environmental Management.47 (5).
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