Once upon a time in the 17th century, the Great Moghul Emperor Jehangir, was the proud owner of an army of over a lakh (1,13,000) elephants. These magnificent creatures roamed all over central India like in Marwar, Chanderi, Satwas, Bijagarh and Panna. The population of their decendants, however has dwindled to less then one third of this number. Where have all our elephants gone?
The Gajah: vulnerable giants
India is home to 57 percent of the Asian Elephants of the world. There are around 23,900 – 32,900 wild and 3467- 3667 captive elephants in our country at present, and a few more in the neighbouring countries of Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Myanmar. There are five broad habitat zones where they dwell: the Lower Himalayas in Uttaranchal-UP, the eastern Gangetic delta of South-west Bengal-Jharkhand-Orissa, the north-eastern (Northern and southern Brahmaputra in north-east valley, the southern Nilgiri and Western ghats of the Deccan states and the islands of Andaman & Nicobar. In these zones there are 26 identified Elephant Reserves (ERs) which provides the exact location of the animal group. These reserves are linked by various corridors which are the elephants’ seasonal migratory routes which includes about 138 intra-state, 28 interstate and 17 global pathways. This entire elephant corridor adds up to around 1,10,00 sq kms. In spite of the space given to them, the pachyderms are dying.
The prime reasons are :
Poaching for ivory is the most critical reason behind the dwindling number of Asian tuskers. Although the population census on elephants shows an upward trend, the selective elimination of males, has resulted in a skewed sex ratio. It is estimated that the country is now left with only about 1200 tuskers in a breeding age. In some areas the normal level of 1:12 (malefemale) has been so distorted that 1:100 is not uncommon. Although India banned ivory trade in 1986 itself, it has been continuing ever since. The year 1990s saw poaching peak to 253 deaths occurring between 1996-8 alone. The major reason why poaching is difficult to track is because of the huge shortage in the wildlife staff force, and pressure from the international markets to legalise ivory trade. Environmentalists have opposed poaching relentlessly from both ecological and ethical positions, but much still needs to be done.
The age-old relationship
The next most significant issue in the elephant saga is the human-elephant conflict (HEC). The Elephant Task Force defines HEC as “the adverse impact both humans and elephants have on each other.” On an average, 400 people are killed annually by elephants and 100 get killed in retaliation. This is a high cost affair. Every two of three rupee spent as part of the Project elephant goes in mitigating HECs. Elephants annually, damage nearly one million hectares of crops each year. Assuming a family holds one hectare on an average, nearly 5,00,000 families are affected by the giant marauders. For the same reason, in the 2009 state assembly elections, the elephant menace was a greater issue amongst the populace than the Maoist disorder. For instance, out of a total of 150 jumbo deaths, Assam had 36 percent, West Bengal 26 percent, Uttarakhand 14 percent, Jharkhand 10 percent, Tamil Nadu six percent and Kerala three percent. In the last two decades the intensity of HECs has risen dramatically. The Elephant Task Force had established a Conflict management Task Force to prevent HEC. But the battle continues unabated.
A Crucial Trunk Call
In 1992, the Project Elephant was launched by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOEF) for three purposes: to protect wild elephants, to regulate elephant corridors and to manage human-animal conflict. But it has failed on almost all fronts. Recently in February 2010, the Elephant Task Force has been established, at par with the Project Tiger, for the protection of both wild and captive elephants. This task force has submitted its last report in August 2010.
The Elephant Task Force is an upgraded structural version of the Project Elephant. Its major aim is to establish a National Elephant Conservation Authority (NECA) in tandem with the National Tiger Conservation Authority which would recruit members directly at the top level, thus avoiding the bureaucratic delays. It has earmarked about ` 50 crores for R&D, and aims to establish open air forest laboratories in collaboration with NGOs. It has emphasised legal coverage to be offered to the ERs and has reclassified them as “let go”, “slow go” and “no go” areas. It proposes a wider ranging plan for the betterment of mahouts and better health care for the elephants, formulation of an Elephant Vision Charter and introduction of a student scholarship exchange programme, it has also launched of Haathi Mere Saathi awareness programme and set up Regional Gajah Centres.
Because of the rapidly degrading environment in these sensitive areas, it is important to immediately implement these plans before the situation sprirals out of control. But unfortunately, most of the report resembles a toothless tiger. However, the recommendations are yet to be implemented and its outcomes are awaited. Let us hope for the best.
The other major hurdle in elephant conservation is inappropriate corridor management. Out of the entire areas recognized as ERs, barring a 700-800 sq km stretch which comes under the Forest Department, the rest of the region does not have any legal protection under the Wildlife Protection Act or the Environment Protection Act. Around 150-200 sq km clearly comes under the Revenue Department and about 200-250 sq km under the Indian Railways and other governmental bodies. These areas are most accident prone. According to the Wildlife Trust of India, more than 118 elephants have been killed in train accidents across the country since 1987. Because of lack of funding, as pointed out by the recent Elephant Task Force report submitted in August 2010, individual / community ownership has remained limited to only about 400-550 sq km. These areas are maintained as private forests, waste lands or crop lands. Other reasons why elephants have reduced in number are, road accidents, high tension collision with power lines and excessive mining.