India’s Elephant Statistics Befits Its Status in Society, Efforts on To Manage Conflict

India’s Elephant Statistics Befits Its Status in Society, Efforts on To Manage Conflict

There are two great krithis on Ganesha in Karnatic music which form the basic lessons of every student of the form - ‘Vatapi Ganapatim Bhaje’, a Sanskrit kriti composed by Muthuswami Dikshitar, and the Tamil song ‘Mooladhara Moorthy’, composed by Papanasam Sivan,.

In Hindustani music too, Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, sarod maestro told this author that he composed Rag Ganesh Kalyan on the deity to embody all that he signifies including auspicious beginnings.

While there is no doubt that Ganesha holds a pre-eminent position in Indian consciousness, efforts are also being made to protect the most magnificent creature in the Indian wild.

Project Elephant Division, Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change in a recent report for 2020, has outlined best practices for Human Elephant Conflict Management in India. The report states that globally, wild Asian elephants are present in 13 countries and India holds the largest population of wild Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) with nearly 30,000 animals.

“Human–elephant conflict is not a new phenomenon and records exist of records exist of elephant crop raiding in Asia as early as 300 BC. Humans and elephants have been utilizing the same space for thousands of years. Despite widespread reverence for wild elephants, human – elephant conflict is on the rise as local people attempt to protect their livelihoods. Therefore, understanding human-elephant conflict is an important first step in the conservation of highly endangered species that can have adverse effects on human communities, such as elephants” says the report.

Upasana Ganguly, (below) Officer In-Charge, Right of Passage: Corridors Projects Wildlife Trust of India in an interview with CSP speaks about the importance of creating corridors for elephants. She will be speaking at Srishti Sambhrama.

Could you tell us how your interest with elephants began?

I have always been fascinated with elephants-their behaviour, their role in the ecosystem and just the way elephant societies function. When I started my career with a couple of on-field elephant related projects, that is when I began to understand the challenges associated with elephant conservation in India as well. At times, it is as difficult for the elephants as it is for the people who coexist with them. So, what started as just love and admiration for the animal, soon became more about wanting to do something to try and protect them.

What are your suggestions for finding safe corridors for elephants and how this could help in conserving and caring for our elephant population?

Elephants are megaherbivores and big so they need a lot of resources, like food and water for sustenance. These corridors connect important viable elephant habitats and facilitate this movement for access to these resources to ensure their long-term survival. This movement between habitats which a corridor facilitates is also important to prevent genetic isolation and in-breeding. There are 101 functional elephant corridors already identified in India which WTI along with the Project Elephant and Forest Departments of States have surveyed, ground-truthed and published in Right of Passage Publication, Edition II (2017).

These corridors are affected by factors like linear infrastructure, agriculture, mining and human habitation. It is an urgent need for relevant govt. and non govt bodies, NGOs, local communities to come together for this. State governments should make efforts to notify elephant corridors and issue guidelines against land use changes in them. Linear infrastructure projects should be avoided through elephant landscapes as much as possible and mitigation measures can be planned in the existing ones. Local communities should be empowered and their capacity strengthened to ensure safe passage to elephants and for conflict management.

What are India's elephants’ statistics over the years? 

The global population of Asian elephants in the wild is estimated to be 48,632-51,680. India has by far the largest number of wild Asian elephants, estimated at 29,964 according to the 2017 census which constitutes about 58% of the species’ global population. The population has been more or less stable over the last decade.

Is India doing anything special for elephants in different parts of the country?

The fact that India has the highest population of the Asian Elephants in the world despite a growing population of 1.3 billion with 450-500 humans dying every year due to conflict with elephants, says a lot about the tolerance level of the communities and public towards our national heritage animal. There are challenges though, with the increasing development pressure on forest habitats. Despite that, India has been at the forefront of elephant conservation. As per the Indian Wildlife Protection Act 1972, the Asian Elephant is accorded with the maximum protection as a Schedule I animal. Recently, in Feb 2020, India made efforts to get the Asian Elephant included in the Appendix I of the UN Convention on Migratory Species which is to ensure protection to this species during transboundary migration to neighbouring countries.

What are the special characteristics of elephants which make them especially valuable in nature conservation?

Elephants are a keystone species. Their nomadic behaviour – the daily and seasonal migrations they make through their home ranges – is immensely important to the environment. They are landscape architects: Elephants create clearings in the forest allowing space for the regeneration of others, which in turn provide sustenance to other herbivorous animals. They are great seed dispersers as they eat plants, fruits and seeds, releasing the seeds when they defecate in other places as they travel. This allows for the distribution of various plant species, which benefits biodiversity. Elephant dung provides nourishment to plants and animals and acts as a breeding ground for insects. In times of drought they access water by digging holes, which benefits other wildlife. Further, their large footprints collect water when it rains, benefitting smaller creatures. By preserving a large area for elephants to roam freely, one provides a suitable habitat for many other animal and plant species of an ecosystem.

Elephant and calf at Thirunelli-Kudrakote elephant corridor. Credit Ramith @WTI.

How do local communities relate to elephants in India. Do you have any anecdotes?

Well, there are different ways in which local communities from different cultures, places, social and economic strata, situations, relate to an elephant. It all ultimately boils down to the level of tolerance and the capacity to coexist with them. Since times immemorial, the communities have had an inherent love and respect for wildlife and the indigenous knowledge to co-exist with them, especially elephants. That tolerance level is now dwindling in a few places because of the immense developmental pressure on the forest habitats of these giants which is leading to conflict.

We work with communities like the Garos in Meghalaya and they refer to elephant as ‘Mama’, ie uncle with respect. They have given up their lands as community reserves to give safe passage to elephants, Similarly, we can see examples of communities also coming forward and actively participating in our awareness campaigns to protect elephants and their habitats because they understand their survival and well-being also depends on the health of the forest ecosystem. This can be seen from the several village level response teams we have created across different states to ensure safe passage to elephants.  Its very important to include local communities in decision making and empower them to champion the cause of elephant conservation.

Ultimately, the survival of the elephant depends more on taking its cause to the people. Gajah (the elephant) and Prajah (the people) have to be looked at together. Using a mix of such approaches, WTI is now working/has worked across 50 such corridors along with its local collaborations to secure them with plans to expand to more.

Could you tell us a bit about WTI's role in securing spaces for elephants:

Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) launched the Right of Passage Project in 2001. In collaboration with a team of researchers, officials and NGOs, WTI has identified 101 such elephant corridors in India and published a report in 2017 titled “Right of Passage: Elephant Corridors of India”. Over the years, the project has developed 4 approaches of securing elephant corridors throughout the country. In addition to land purchase and facilitating voluntary relocation of people as one of the approaches, WTI also assists the state Forest Departments to secure corridors by mediating between the authorities and locals settled in the corridors. While the third approach involves community participation to ‘set aside’ land for securement to ensure community-based protection, the fourth approach focuses on mobilising public and political will to secure corridors through policy interventions, public campaigns, establishing conservation networks and spot-interventions. Ultimately, the survival of the elephant depends more on taking its cause to the people. Gajah (the elephant) and Prajah (the people) have to be looked at together. Using a mix of such approaches, WTI is now working/has worked across 50 such corridors along with its local collaborations to secure them with plans to expand to more.

(Cover pic: Credit Avijan Saha )