God, Enemy, Child
: Relationships between Elephants and Humans in the Western Ghats, India.

  • Deepak Bhat Dundi

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


The ecological breakdown is posing an enormous threat to the life of both humans and animals. The intensification of conservation-related conflict is one of the main ecological challenges faced in the Western Ghats of India. Therefore, this dissertation explores the complex interaction between humans and wildlife (Asian elephants) and between different groups of humans to find better approaches to sharing space with wildlife (Asian elephants). This study was carried out in both protected areas (Nagarahole Tiger Reserve and the Reserve Forests Kodagu) and agricultural areas located in the Western Ghats of India. In the study area, the expansion of modern agriculture, monoculture plantations, and the construction of dams damaged forests and wildlife and uprooted marginalised people. To prevent further damage to wildlife and biodiversity, fortress conservation reserves were established. As a result, a boundary between the agriculture zone and the conservation zone was established to inhibit human and wildlife movement between the two. However, many wildlife and people do not accept or adhere to the boundary. Several Adivasi people fight for their forest rights inside the protected area. Wildlife such as Asian elephants defies the barriers and venture into agricultural areas, sometimes feeding on crops and damaging properties. In this context, this study explored how different groups of people such as wealthy farmers, small-scale farmers, officials of the Forest Department, Adivasi people, and Mahouts interact with one another. Additionally, how do these people relate to both wild and captured Asian elephants? I used a multispecies ethnography approach as a methodology and focused on detailed stories and anecdotes narrated by inhabitants of the study area who encountered elephants frequently. During the 12 months of ethnographic fieldwork, I listened to over 250 people’s stories; many of these stories described issues such as why some elephants kill people, why some bless people, why some are playful while others are ferocious, how elephants take revenge, why they destroy houses every now and then, and why certain elephants eat meat cooked by people. These stories also deal with questions such as how some elephants are good, how some are bad, and how some are quarrelsome. There are also stories about socio-ecological change, including how coffee plantations destroyed the forest that Adivasi people, their deities, and wild elephants once inhabited. A few stories outlined conflicts between local farmers, Adivasi people, and the Forest Department. Based on the insights offered by these stories, the dissertation argues that elephants and human life are deeply entangled in the study area; the nature-cultures of both elephants and humans are interconnected. These stories highlight that most people in the study area are aware that elephants are agents and intelligent, emotional beings. For local people, each elephant is different, and people recognise individual elephants based on their unique characteristics. People believe that, as human beings, elephants also perceive and respond to individual humans differently. Many stories narrated in the dissertation are nonanthropocentric in nature, and these stories are beneficial for envisioning possible new ways for humans and elephants to coexist. This study argues that religion, the belief system of local people, and socio-ecological change in the landscape influence the human-elephant relationships in the study area. Therefore, the current study stresses the inclusion of local cultural and ecological knowledge in wildlife management interventions.
Date of Award9 Aug 2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Roehampton
SponsorsUniversity of Roehampton Vice-Chancellor’s Scholarship
SupervisorGarry Marvin (Director of Studies), Istvan Praet (Co-Supervisor) & Caroline Ross (Co-Supervisor)


  • Human-Animal Relations India
  • Multi-Species Ethnography
  • Human-Elephant Relations India
  • Human-Wildlife Conflict

Cite this