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Crocodile tears for the elephant

Are the claims of a stable elephant population diverting focus from the increasing human-elephant conflict and corruption allegations in mitigation measures?

Shrinking forest corridors force elephants out in the open at Kestopur near Bagdogra. Photo: Anujit Basu,
Shrinking forest corridors force elephants out in the open at Kestopur near Bagdogra. Photo: Anujit Basu,

At two different forums last weekend, I heard the current Union environment minister, Harsh Vardhan, and one of his predecessors, Jairam Ramesh, speaking their minds. The former minister acknowledged the “tough choices" he faced when he had to give forest clearances for development projects. Now a Rajya Sabha member, Ramesh hinted that more difficult days lay ahead—and that environment protection laws could see further dilution.

His parting shot: “It is near impossible for any minister to focus on long-term environment protection over tangible economic interests. As ministers and leaders of political parties, we all make tall promises in our speeches but fail miserably in implementing most of them."

That, unfortunately, seems to be true.

Vardhan spoke at length at Delhi’s Teen Murti Bhawan on 12 August, on the occasion of World Elephant Day. Ironically, he was more interested in talking about the elephant god, Ganesh, than tackling one of the immediate challenges affecting elephant conservation—the human-elephant conflict that has affected lives and livelihoods, even as it has displaced pachyderms from their habitats. Vardhan, in fact, wanted wild elephants in every state and wondered why Maharashtra, which celebrates Ganesh Utsav with fervour, has so few of them. The state recorded only six wild elephants in the latest count.

It was at the same function that Raman Sukumar, an elephant expert and scientific adviser for the census, announced the results of the latest count: India has 27,132 elephants. The pachyderm population is stable, despite a decrease of 3,000 elephants (10%) from the last count in 2012. The change in numbers is attributed to the latest scientific methods being used for counting under the All-India Synchronized Asian Elephant Population Estimation 2017. According to the report, another figure has remained stable over the last decade —“an average of 400 people are killed each year in human-elephant conflict and about 100 elephants die."

According to the census, elephants are found in 22 states and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. They are now confined to four isolated landscapes—north (Terai region), the North-East, central-east and south India. South India is home to 11,960 pachyderms, followed by the North-East (10,139). A majority of elephants, in fact, are now found outside protected areas such as national parks and wildlife sanctuaries. Today, they can be spotted in places like Bankura in south Bengal and Hosur in Tamil Nadu, where there was no record of the species a decade ago.

Elephants in the Gorumara National Park. Photo: ©Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters

The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS-India), a non-governmental organization whose scientists first raised an alarm in 2015, is sceptical of the new numbers. Their research paper, Patterns And Determinants Of Habitat Occupancy By The Asian Elephant In The Western Ghats Of Karnataka, India, states: “Elephant numbers obtained from the Synchronized Elephant Census (SEC) lack scientific rigour, both because of the unreliability of the methods used and the mismatch between the population parameters and the spatial scale at which they are estimated. As noted by the Elephant Task Force Report 2010, the block and waterhole count methods used in the current SEC are not rooted in estimation theory, are subject to a number of biases, and are likely to produce misleading elephant population numbers."

The WCS-India team has been rooting for robust science-based programmes to monitor elephant populations through habitat occupancy, population distribution and territorial expanse rather than a head count. “Elephant populations must be scientifically monitored to permit assessments of their dynamics and for the prioritization of protection and conflict mitigation efforts at important conservation sites across their range. Almost half of the Asian elephants’ habitat is either fragmented or heavily impacted by humans. An upswing in incidents of human-elephant conflict is severely exacerbating the endangered status of the species," says Varun Goswami, a conservation biologist at WCS-India who focuses on Asian elephants, .

In fact, a report by the non-profit Wildlife Trust of India, “Right Of Passage: Elephant Corridors Of India" (second edition), released at the 12 August function, states that only 13% of the corridors identified have proper forest cover, compared to 25% in 2005. Two-thirds of the 101 forest corridors that are used regularly by elephants for local migration have become constricted owing to land-use changes. “At least seven corridors have been completely lost in the last decade and many are on the verge of being impaired. This has been due to the lack of any agency keeping a close tab on these corridors and preventing land-use changes," says Sandeep Kumar Tiwari, co-author and programme manager, IUCN/SSC Asian Elephant Specialist Group.

North Bengal is said to have one of the most fragmented habitats. It has one corridor for every 150 sq. km of available elephant habitat, north-west India has one corridor for every 500 sq. km, central India has one corridor for every 840 sq. km, southern India one for every 1,410 sq. km, and the North-East, one for every 1,565 sq. km. Only 22% of the corridors have no human settlement. Two-thirds have highways running through them and one-fourth have railway tracks.

For many conservation biologists, however, the numbers hold little value . “India is quite unprepared in its knowledge base to deal with the problem of human-wildlife conflict, largely because of the lack of information on the human dimension of the issue, as well as lack of research on interactions between humans and wildlife in human-use landscapes," says Vidhya Athreya, a conservation biologist with the WCS-India.

Most people still seem to believe that elephants (and wildlife in general) are restricted to forests. There are very few research studies on the ecology and social dimension of human-elephant (or other wildlife) relationships in areas outside forests.

On 12 May 2013, for instance, the residents of Hosur in Tamil Nadu woke up to find four bull elephants walking through their town, across residential colonies, breaking through compound walls. They took shelter in the wooded campus of the Government Silk Farm and moved out only late evening, heading towards the Jawalagiri Range.

“In 2010, around 70 elephants moved into the Sanamavu Reserve Forest in Tamil Nadu and then continued north. The herd crossed the busy Bangalore- Salem National Highway No.7 and crossed into Andhra Pradesh. These elephants returned the same way in early 2011," says Sanjeev Kumar S.R., president of the Kenneth Anderson Nature Society, an NGO working on wildlife conservation in the Melagiri region of Tamil Nadu.

“This pattern," he says, “continued to repeat through 2012 and 2013. By 2014 and 2015, stray individual elephants and small herds continued to stay back in the new areas long after the migration season got over in March-April. And it is now fairly well established that there are around 100-120 elephants ranging seasonally in this landscape, stretching from Bannerghatta in Karnataka across the Hosur forest division, all the way up to Kuppam in Andhra Pradesh. These elephant herds take shelter in small forest patches during the day and raid crops at night. Their diet has changed over the years and they are now largely dependent on crops," he adds.

The situation is similar in south Bengal, where herds displaced from neighbouring Jharkhand due to mining are now dependent on agricultural produce in the districts of West Midnapore, Purulia and Bankura.

Human-elephant conflict has, in fact, become a serious issue in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal and Assam. Attempts to check this have only transferred the problem to neighbouring areas.

Vast sums have been spent on elephant-proof trenches and elephant-proof fencing costing upwards of Rs5 lakh per kilometre —nothing has worked long term, but these remain the standard response to restrict elephants to protected areas.

Over the years, suggestions on alternatives measures have included steps that could potentially increase tolerance for conflict-prone species like leopards, and alleviate conflict-induced property and economic loss.

“The prediction of future conflicts between wildlife and people, and the design of holistic, lasting strategies that can effectively manage these conflicts, hinges on a clear understanding of conflict drivers over time and across space," says Goswami of WCS-India.

They don’t see this happening.

The minister, the elephant expert and the director of Project Elephant (who also made a speech at the 12 August function) are all members of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL), a Central board that is meant to safeguard flora and fauna. Its recent decisions have, however, so upset conservationists that they have started calling it a “forest clearance board" for industry.

For the elephant, as well as other wild animals, the future looks bleak.

Out In The Wild is a column on the good, bad and ugly of nature conservation.

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