Heritage animal, elephantine problem

We have declared elephants as our ‘National Heritage Animal’. And left them to fight for their survival against odds.

In October 2010, with much fanfare, India declared the elephant as its National Heritage Animal. While it’s good that the state officially acknowledged the deep cultural links that our people have with Ganesh, the elephant-headed god, it was pretty much the only substantive recommendation of the Elephant Task Force — appointed to propose measures to strengthen elephant conservation — which it paid heed to.

The ETF report, ‘Gajah’, had a host of other recommendations, key among which was an amendment to the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, to create an autonomous authority along the lines of the National Tiger Conservation Authority.

While the then Union Minister for Environment and Forests lent his weight to the appointment of a National Elephant Conservation Authority, the proposal was promptly shot down by the Prime Minister’s office even before it could reach the Cabinet.

The reasons are obvious and linked with the failure to implement other recommendations crucial to the conservation of the Elephas maximus. These include the declaration of elephant landscapes, inclusion of critical elephant corridors into the ‘protected areas’ network, making it mandatory for diversion of forest land in elephant corridors to be approved by the Forest Advisory Committee at the Centre instead of by the regional offices of the Ministry of Environment and Forests (notorious for their vulnerability to ‘influences’) and notifying elephant reserves as Ecologically Sensitive Areas under the Environment Protection Act, 1986. It is easy to see why these have been glossed over, given the serious implications.

Elephant conservation is all about securing elephant habitats and halting their fragmentation. This calls for serious protection measures, implying that these forests must be restricted — that their destruction from mining, thermal power plants and other major industries be regulated by law. But none of this is palatable, not when we are hurtling down the double-digit growth path, trampling over crucial ecological concerns.

In the current scenario, when there is frenetic attempt to grab land and intense pressure to denotify wildlife habitats, any move to protect animal habitats is anathema to the state, which is bent upon giving away forest and community lands to industry at any cost.

The vulnerability of the PMO to the industry lobby’s pressure was apparent, when in February, the Environment Ministry agreed to divert an additional 25 per cent of forest land earlier categorised as ‘no-go’ for projects concerning power, roads and coal.

Media reports said this was after the PMO stepped in and pressured the Ministry to fast-track project clearances. The trigger, reportedly, was a meeting the Government held with industry bigwigs on the economic slowdown. It is equally apparent that in this battle, the elephant is losing ground. In the past 50 years, the elephant’s geographic range has shrunk by over 70 per cent; all that remain are fragmented pockets of forest. Conflict is rooted in habitat loss and fragmentation: Shrinking, patchwork forests push elephants into human-dominated landscapes, and deadly confrontation becomes inevitable.

Elephants are nomadic creatures dictated by ancient instincts that lead them to sources of food and water, especially in times of scarcity. But their forests and migratory paths are swallowed by dams, devastated by mines, taken over by agriculture and ripped apart by the highways and the railways. Disoriented, homeless and starved, elephants raid crops, destroy houses and occasionally kill helpless people protecting their homes and crop. In retaliation, people poison, electrocute and even blow up elephants by placing crude bombs in jackfruits or bananas that the unsuspecting pachyderms eat.

Human-elephant conflict is thus increasing. On an average, about 300 people and 100 elephants lose their lives annually. Crop damage by elephants is estimated to impact about one million hectares. Yet, apart from doling out compensation — erratically and unsystematically — the Government has no sound policy or any long-term strategy to tackle the conflict.

Poaching is another issue usually brushed aside by wildlife managers as ‘not a problem’. How, then, does one explain forests where the male-female elephant ratio is as skewed as 1:100? Or the fact that the population of tuskers in Orissa has plunged to an estimated 200 now against the previous count of 363 in 2002? No less than three out of 10 elephant deaths are unnatural: Attributed to train accidents, electrocution, poaching and poisoning.

Clearly, the Gajah is in trouble. Granting the elephant a grand title or running Haathi Mere Saathi campaigns is mere symbolism. Unless they are backed by effective implementation of law, sound policies and hard conservation action, such campaigns are not going to achieve anything.

Even the Environment Ministry, mandated for the elephant’s protection, has been complacent. Forget a dedicated, autonomous authority, even the existing Project Elephant has been headless — and clueless — for nearly 18 months now. The budget allocation for the project this year was a mere `19.58 crore for 32 elephant reserves across the country. Significantly, about a third of the budget is spent on conflict.

It is another matter that elephant reserves have little sanctity and are largely sanctuaries on paper. Elephant corridors are also steadily being eroded as they give way to coal mines, oil refineries, highways, railway lines, stadiums, golf courses and tourism infrastructure.

The Uttarakhand Government looked on as an oil depot created a physical barrier across the Gola river corridor that links the Corbett Tiger Reserve and Nandhour landscape — home to about 1,000 elephants, and in fact handed away part of the corridor for a para-military camp. Chhattisgarh refused to notify two elephant reserves, due to coal interests, as did Orissa.

What the Government is taking refuge in is in numbers — there are believed to be 25,000 to 27,000 elephants in the country, and ‘increasing’. This sounds like an echo of the Great Indian Tiger Saga: While in the forests, the tigers were dying, successive Governments insisted that “all is well”, steadily increasing the tiger numbers on paper. Habitats of both elephants and tigers overlap in most parts of the country.

Elephants face the same threats as the tiger: Poaching, conflict, habitat loss and fragmentation. So, how is it that elephant numbers are rising? It is important that we establish robust and better systems of estimation of elephant populations. Elephants are running out of space and time.

India has about 60 per cent of the world’s wild Asian elephants. We owe this not just to legal protection, but to the reverence for elephants that has been intrinsic in Indian culture. Lord Ganesh is the god of wisdom and fortune, but his own fortune is fraying. Clearly, we have failed the gods we love. The writer is member of National Board of Wildlife.

Published in The Pioneer on april 25, 2012

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