The Neglect of Traditional Ecological Knowledge on Wild Elephant-Related Problems in Xishuangbanna, SW China

Zhao-lu Wu, Qing-cheng He, and Qiu-jun Wu

Abstract Elephants have roamed into areas of human settlement and destroyed crops, damaged houses and infrastructures, and occasionally injured or killed people, resulting in elephant-related problems in southwestern China. Based on data collected in the field during July 2009 to March 2011 as well as in the literature, we discuss the effects of neglecting traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) on wild Asian elephant-related problems. We had three findings. First, the environment-friendly TEK, including the simple ecological views of forest priority, biocultural rural landscape, and elephant culture, played an important role in conservation of forests and all the wildlife in the forests. Second, indigenous people were forced to abandon traditional beliefs and cultures, which were considered as blind worship in the late 1950s. The neglect of TEK increased human-elephant conflicts. After the armed “capturing elephant” approved by government during 1972-1973, illegal elephant poaching occurred yearly. Elephants lost habitats and began to cause problems: 140 people were injured or killed as a result of elephant attacks during 1991-2008. Third, the prevailing selfish consciousness encouraged people to move into Xishuangbanna to cultivate tropical crops including rubber and to build a highway network, worsening the elephant-related problems. The tradi­tional culture of adoring the wild elephant became weak; 95.9 % of the 412 inter­viewees did not like to coexist with wild elephants. In conclusion, it could be understood clearly that humans had approached the elephants’ habitat and provoked the elephants’ aggressive behavior. It is necessary to reconfigure moderate and environment-friendly TEK to mitigate elephant-related problems.

Z.-l. Wu • Q.-j. Wu

Institute of Ecology and Geobotany, Yunnan University, Kunming 650091, China e-mail: zlwu@ynu. edu. cn; zlwu1958@qq. com

Q.-c. He (*)

Editorial Department of Journal, Yunnan Agricultural University, Kunming 650201, China e-mail:

N. Nakagoshi and J. A. Mabuhay (eds.), Designing Low Carbon Societies in Landscapes, Ecological Research Monographs, DOI 10.1007/978-4-431-54819-5_10, © Springer Japan 2014

Keywords Cultural landscape • Human-elephant conflict (HEC) • Rubber cultivation • Sacred site • Selfish consciousness • Traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) • Wild elephant-related problems • Xishuangbanna

10.1 Introduction

It was believed for many years that there were no wild elephants in China (Chen et al. 2006), until a Scientific Investigation Team from the Chinese Academy of Sciences found wild elephants living in forests of Southern Yunnan Province during 1957-1958. Wild elephants “inhabited in primary forests and never attacked humans” (Shou et al. 1959), revealing the harmonious relationship between humans and elephants at that time. By the end of the twentieth century, however, although there was only 200 to 250 wild elephants in China, elephant-related problems happened frequently, causing serious human-elephant conflict, ecological prob­lems, and social troubles (Chen et al. 2006). Elephant-related problems, such as destroying crops, damaging houses and infrastructures, disturbing daily life and agricultural production, and attacking people and livestock (Hoare and Du Toit 1999; O’Connell-Rodwell et al. 2000; Sukumar 2006), occurred when elephants appeared. From 1991 to 2008, 140 people were injured or killed as a result of elephant attacks; the number was even increased year by year (Wu 2008). For example: on July 7, 2010, in Mengyang sub-reserve, a passerby was injured by two elephants; on Nov. 3, 2010, in Mengman Town, Mengla County, a 67-year-old man was trampled to death by elephants when he was working in his cultivated field; on Feb.13, 2011, in Yunxian Town, Puer Prefecture, four elephants fled from Xishuangbanna, destroyed pigpens and kitchens, and threatened villagers; on Aug.16, 2011, in Mengyang sub-reserve, five motor cars, four cars, and one truck were damaged by a young elephant that roamed in the highway. According to the Bureau of Xishuangbanna Nature Reserve, elephant-related problems caused directly pecuniary loss, more than 4.3 million Yuan RMB, in 136 villages of Xishuangbanna in 2010.

Usually, based on anthropocentricism, human-wildlife conflicts have been appraised according to material and mental damages or threats to humans caused by wildlife and were called “wildlife troubles” (He and Wu 2010). If humans withdraw from the conflict, however, the named wildlife troubles would just be the ecological adaption of wildlife to the human-dominated environments. In Xishuangbanna, humans and human activities approached the elephants’ habitat unceasingly (Wu et al. 2007), making encounters between humans and elephants likely. Elephant-related problems, therefore, are unavoidable (He et al. 2011).

Different approaches from technical aspects to cultural aspects had be applied to the mitigation of human-wildlife conflict. Currently, much research is focused on human population growth, habitat fragmentation (Lang et al. 2008), change of elephants’ ecological behaviors (Feng et al. 2010), diet and water availability (Loarie et al. 2009), as the technical approach(Nyhus and Tilson 2004; WWF 2008).

We discuss here another approach, the cultural approach. We hypothesized that elephant-related problems occurred because of the occupation of elephant habitats by humans, and that this occupation was the result of the neglect of local traditional ecological knowledge (TEK). We then analyzed the roles of TEK in protecting wild elephants and mitigating elephant-related problems.