Of the total global population of Asian elephants numbering 40,000-56,000, the Indian sub-continent is home to 27,000-32,000 (ENVIS, 2016) with the population spread over 65,271 sq km in the north-east, central, north and south of India. The Asiatic or Asian elephant is the sole living species of the genus Elephas and has three subspecies—Elephas maximus maximus of Sri Lanka, the Indian elephant or Elephas Maximus Indicus and the Sumatran Elphas Maximus Sumatranus.
Since 1986, E maximus has been listed as an endangered species by the International Union of Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), with the global population of Asian elephants having declined by at least 50 per cent.
Why the decline?
With low birth and high death rate, elephants are currently declining because of:
- fragmentation of habitat;
- poaching, resulting in a skewed sex ratio—since it is only the male elephants that have tusks; and,
- adverse impact of the expansion of roadways and railways.
The east-central landscape contains only 10 per cent of the country’s total elephants population, yet the region contributes to about 70 per cent of human mortality due to human-elephants conflict (HEC). This is because the east-central region suffers high fragmentation of habitat due to unplanned human settlement in the elephant range, road widening and construction of embankments. In northern West Bengal, of the estimated 2687 km of elephants range, 34 per cent is forest, 22 is tea garden, 17 is agriculture and the balance comprises area of human habitation, water and sands (Das, 2013). The six protected areas, comprise only 28 per cent of the total elephant range. There is also range expansion of the elephants during the two crop seasons. Further, dolomite mining on the India-Bhutan border has caused its dust to accumulate on the forest floor making the soil alkaline. Due to high alkanity, phosphate availability to plants is affected causing their death. Between 1993-1999, 850 hectares of forests were destroyed in this manner causing elephants to move south and hence resulting in enhanced HEC (ibid).
Elephants are probably the only species that come into such serious conflict with people when their habitat is destroyed. Severe widespread HEC is an index of failure to protect forest cover or reverse their fragmentation and degradation. On an average nearly 400 people are killed annually by elephants and about 100 elephants are killed by people in retaliation (ENVIS, 2016). Elephants annually damage 0.8 to 1 million hectares of land (ibid).
Effective mitigation of conflict is therefore imperative for successful elephants conservation. Policies and processes in this regard are not new to India as the nation has a history of elephants conservation measures, which require a critical review and both urgent as well as long term action.
Fragmentation and poaching
Elephants populations, owing to their size and huge range, need a vast area for free movement. In the absence of adequate expanses to move around, human-elephant conflicts can create havoc. Elephants can enter human settlements in search of food, and end up trampling crops, damaging homes and injuring people.
Fragmentation of elephants habitat has been most severe in northern West Bengal followed by north-western India, north-eastern India and central India respectively. The least fragmentation was noted in southern India (ibid).
In north Bengal, Jharkhand and Assam, elephants wreak havoc when they enter human settlements attracted by the smell of aromatic rice, or bananas. Since they move in a herd, they can destroy entire plantations, and damage homes. Huge compensations have had to be paid to farmers down the years to make up for crop depredations by elephants marauding the countryside. In Bannerghata National Park and Kodagu (earlier Coorg), human-elephant conflicts too are a major concern. Elephants are known stray into human settlements in search of crops.
A worldwide phenomenon poaching has been severely affecting the elephants population. Male tuskers are poached to yield precious ivory.
Roadways and railways
In India, and especially in north Bengal, train accidents account for a large number of elephants deaths along railway tracks. Since 1987, the country has lost 183 elephants due to train hits. Nearly 85 per cent of these deaths are from Assam, West Bengal, Uttarakhand and Jharkhand. Of the rest, 6 per cent are from Tamil Nadu, 2 per cent from Uttar Pradesh, 4 per cent from Kerala, 2 per cent from Odisha and 1 per cent from Tripura (ibid).
Most such deaths are due to narrow gauge railway tracks being converted into broad which has resulted in an increase in speed and frequency of the trains. In West Bengal, accidents generally have taken place in the Siliguri-Alipurduar stretch, which passes through several protected areas and forested tracts. Besides, there are several highways that cut through forests all over India, accounting for elephants deaths.
With the fragmentation of habitats, elephants corridors have assumed great significance. Elephant corridors are narrow strips of land that allow pachyderms to move from one patch of habitat to another. There are 183 identified elephants corridors in India. Out of this, 138 are state elephant corridors, 28 inter-state elephant corridors and 17 are international elephant corridors (ibid). Among state corridors, the largest number is located in Meghalaya; among, inter-state, maximum are shared by Jharkhand and Odisha. India also shares several international corridors with Bangladesh.
With the primary need to restore elephant habitats and reduce the suffering of both elephant and human populations, the Indian government launched ‘Project Elephant’ in 1992 as a centrally sponsored scheme of the Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change (MoEF&CC) with a small outlay of INR 2.5 crores for that year. In subsequent years, the outlay increased plan wise from INR 20.75 crores in the 8th five year plan to INR 200 crores for the 12th plan.
Project Elephant was intended to provide financial and technical support to states with elephant populations for protection of habitats and corridors and to address HEC. The project also intended to promote the welfare of captive elephants in the country.
Primarily, the Project aimed at:
- Conserving and protecting where necessary, restoring natural habitats and traditional corridors/migratory routes or movement paths used by the elephants—through eco-restoration, land acquisition, relocation of villages, etc ;
- Taking concrete anti-poaching measures by deployment of patrolling squads, intelligence gathering etc;
- Creating a mechanism to ensure inter-state, regional and national level coordination in conserving elephant ranges;
- Creating infrastructure for veterinary care, management training, humane methods of capture, tranquilising and translocation etc., of wild elephants, as and when required.
The Project is being currently implemented in 16 states/UTs—Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Kerala, Maharashtra, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Odisha, Tamil Nadu, Tripura, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, and West Bengal.
Among the notable achievements under Project Elephant are:
- The notifying of 29 elephant reserves (ERs) extending over about 65483.86 sq km by various states; including Dandeli and Bhadra elephant reserves in Karnataka, which was notified in March, 2015; and,
- Baitami and South Odisha elephant reserves in Odisha, Lemru elephant reserve in Chhattisgarh and Khasi elephant reserve in Meghalaya have been approved by the Central Government but are yet to be notified by the states.
The Gajah Report
In February 2010, an Elephant Task Force was constituted to provide detailed recommendations for the upgradation of Project Elephant, which submitted its Report, recommending an enhanced budgetary outlay for Project Elephant, and the declaration of 88 elephant corridors.
It called for:
- Establishment of a National Elephant Conservation Authority (NECA);
- Declaration of ten elephant landscapes, out of which five—Kaziranga-Kabri Anglong-Intaki, Kameng-Sonitpur, east central, north western and Brahmagiri-Nilgiri-Eastern Ghats, need to be declared with immediate effect.
- Securing of elephant corridors.
- Declaration that elephant reserves should be the basic management unit for focused elephant conservation in the country. The limits of an elephant reserve should lie within the state boundaries. If inter-state reserves exist, these unified boundaries need to be re-aligned. As of now India has 29 notified elephant reserves.
- In addition to the national parks and wildlife sanctuaries and other protected area (PA) categories existing in the elephant reserves, the Gajah Report called for other critical elephant habitat and corridors be brought under the PA network.
- It also called for controlling of poaching and the ivory trade through modern techniques and coordination between forest and paramilitary personnel along international borders.
- Notably, it emphasised on awareness and outreach programmes for the people, besides calling for an end to the captivity and use of elephants for entertainment and similar activities.
The MIKE Programme
Monitoring of Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE) programme is an international initiative, mandated by the Conference of Parties (COP) resolution of CITES. Under this programme, data is being collected from all sites on a monthly basis, and being submitted to a sub regional support office for South Asia located in Delhi—India being a signatory nation. MIKE seeks to put an end to poaching and the illegal trade in ivory worldwide.
Elephant Conservation: Progress So Far
Securing elephant corridors: Several NGOs and organisations such as the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI), Asian Nature Conservation Foundation (ANCF) are currently assisting state forest departments in identification, securing and documentation of important elephant corridors in the country.
With financial support from Project Elephant, the Karnataka Forest Department and ANCF has secured the Kaniyanpura-Moyar corridor connecting the elephant habitats of Bandipur Tiger Reserve through land purchase in 2001. The West Bengal Forest Department has declared part of the corridor forest of Apalchand-Mahananda as Teesta Chaur Wildlife Sanctuary. The Uttarakhand Forest Department in collaboration with WTI is securing the Chilla-Motichur corridor through voluntary relocation of people, construction of overpass for vehicles and mitigating of elephant mortality by train hit.
Additionally, land has been purchased for corridors/rehabilitation of people, such as in the Tirunelli-Kudrakote in Kerala though WTI voluntary public initiative for transfer of private lands, as in Kalapahar-Daigurung corridor in Assam. Community land voluntarily surrendered for the migration of elephants, as in the Siju-Rewak and Rewak-Emangre corridors in Meghalaya, has been declared Village Reserve Forest, through WTI .
Averting train accidents: In West Bengal, accidents have generally taken place on the railway tracks connecting Siliguri to Alipurduar, which passes through several protected areas and forested tracts. The total length of this track is 168 km, of which approximately 74 km (44 per cent) passes through forests. Conversion of this track from meter gauge to broad gauge has aggravated the problem, owing to an increase in frequency and speed of trains. In 2013, a writ petition filed by Shakti Prasad Nayak dealing with elephant deaths due to train accidents in the Supreme Court of India, saw the MoEF&CC, Ministry of Railways and the West Bengal Forest Department take a number of steps in keeping with the orders of the Court, resulting in a huge drop in elephant deaths due to train accidents. Since 2013-14, there has been no incident of large scale elephant mortality on the Siliguri-Alipurduar tracks in North Bengal.
In Uttarakhand, the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) initiated conservation actions in Rajaji National Park, Uttarakhand in collaboration with the Uttarakhand Forest Department and Northern Railways. The mitigation measures implemented jointly helped in eliminating elephant mortality due to train accidents in Uttarakhand since 2002. IIT Delhi is also currently developing a elephants detection system on railway tracks for minimising elephant mortality due to train accidents.
Landuse change: Elephants enter human settlements in search of food when forests fall short of food and water for them. In the Chilapata-Jaldapara forests of Alipurduar (north Bengal), teak monoculture plantation by the West Bengal Forest Department saw a drop in groundwater levels and the depleting of vegetation, since teak prevents undergrowth. It also saw the depletion of the chipti, purundi, khassiya and dadda grasses that elephants gorge on. This saw elephants attack paddy fields and uproot banana plants and fruit trees in adjoining forest villages for food. Once the Forest Department realised their mistake, and took to planting fast-growing fruit trees and the grass varieties that are the elephant’s staple food, elephant raids reportedly nearly stopped (Civil Society, 2009). The occasional elephants attack is only when the paddy ripens, mainly since aromatic rice holds a special attraction for pachyderms.
Solar fences, elephant-proof trenches, rubble and concrete walls, wire mesh, concrete moats and spike pillars are being successfully used by locals in Kodagu to keep elephants out of coffee plantations and farms. The problem could be better solved, if, as Raman Sukumar and Narender Pani, researchers on the Indo-German Biodiversity Programme who have worked on the economics of the HEC, recommend “the cultivation of crops like mulberry that do not attract elephants” is done in the vicinity of elephant habitats. Similarly, it would do well to mark elephants specific paths for the movement of animals, rather than relocating of human populations (Indo-German Biodiversity Programme/MoEFCC/2016).
Instances of HEC point to lacunae in governance of elephant habitats, reserves, and corridors. To summarise, elephants conservation demands:
- Legal protection for elephant reserves and corridors;
- Mitigation of HEC;
- Preparation of landscape level regional plans; and,
- Strengthening of the Project Elephants Division.
The tasks certainly seem daunting. But going by a recent study using data from 164 protected areas across 25 countries, and elephants population data from 2009 to 2013, the loss of tourism revenue due to poaching of elephants came to an estimated 25 million USD, ranging from 10-50 million USD in countries around the world (The Guardian, 2016).
This would also apply to elephant deaths due to accidents, HEC due to fragmentation of habitat and grabbing of forest land for human habitation as well.
Lessons could also be learnt from the success achieved by elephant conservation programmes in other countries of Africa and Asia, where elephant populations have thrived with the help of local communities, as in Congo, Cambodia and Myanmar. The turnaround has come about through effective park management, community education, and ground level development to wean locals from poaching. Nearer home, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) India programme, led by Ullas Karanth, has conserved the largest wild Asian elephant population—more than 5,000 animals in the Western Ghats regions of Karnataka and adjacent areas. That work includes strong enforcement, voluntary relocation of families away from elephants habitats, mitigation of development and infrastructure project impacts, and better resolution of HEC (Huffington Post, 2014).
Civil Society, September-October, 2009, Amid a Choir of Crickets.
Das. K. 2013. Man–Elephant Conflicts in North Bengal.
ENVIS Centre on Wildlife and Protected Areas. 2016. Important Coastal and Marine Biodiversity Areas (ICMBAs).
Indo-German Biodiversity Programme.
The Guardian. 2016. Elephant Poaching Costing African Nations Millions in Lost Tourism Revenue.
The Huffington Post. 2014. Elephant Conservation Success Stories to Celebrate and Replicate.