WILDLIFE: Jumbo cry for rethink

Wild elephant scours a tourist bus for food in Darjeeling District – scared or blessed by Ganesh ?!! (TT)

WILDLIFE: Jumbo cry for rethink – captive breeding not an option as in Thailand ?!!

Mammoth Mission - a rising population, human and animal ?!! (TT)


New Delhi, Aug. 31: Ajay Desai recalls the devastated face of a woman he had met in a village in southern India. Twice in two years, elephants had raided her small patch of land, trampling and feeding on her paddy crop and leaving nothing for harvesting.

The woman, who had borrowed money for the crop, gave up and became a labourer. “She was alone — after the first raid, her two sons moved to Bangalore to try something else, and she hadn’t heard from them,” said Desai, a wildlife biologist who specialises in elephants.

Hers is among an estimated 500,000 families across the country who find themselves at war with elephants each year. The human-elephant conflict, triggered by elephants raiding crop fields, sometimes degenerates into tit-for-tat killings.

Government figures of India’s elephant population show an upward trend but the human-elephant conflict, along with loss of habitat and selective murder of males for tusks, portend serious threats, a government task force said today.

In its report to the environment and forests ministry, the task force has called for new strategies to mitigate conflict, prevent further degradation of habitat, and improve the living conditions of elephants nationwide — whether in the wild, in private captivity or in temples.

India has about 3,500 elephants in captivity — maintained by religious institutions, private owners and alms-seekers.

The task force has recommended the creation of a National Elephant Conservation Authority, and an increased financial outlay for strengthening elephant conservation infrastructure and activities — Rs 600 crore for the 12th plan period.

The task force has asked that five areas — Kaziranga-Karbi Anglong-Intanki, Kameng-Sonitpur, East Central, North Western, and the Brahmagiri-Nilgiri-Eastern ghats regions — should be declared as “elephant landscapes”.

It has recommended that encroachment on elephant corridors — the routes that elephant herds use to move from one feeding zone to another — be penalised with a minimum fine of Rs 10 lakh and a two-year jail term.

The task force has indicated that there are problems in the methods used for the current population estimate of about 26,000 wild elephants and that this figure does not allow an assessment of how the populations are faring in the wild.

Such an assessment, for instance, would require information about the age and sex of the elephants in different parts of the country but the data are not reliably available.

“In some parts of the country, poaching for tusks has led to skewed sex ratios of males to females — 1 to 120 in Periyar,” said Mahesh Rangarajan, an environmental historian and chairman of the task force.

The task force has observed that about 400 people are killed each year by elephants and people kill about 100 elephants each year in retaliation. Elephants typically damage about a million hectares of crop each year. The conflict levels are particularly high in West Bengal, Assam, Orissa, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, it said.

“We’ve allowed the conflict to grow through inaction,” said Desai, a co-chair of the Asian Elephant Specialist Group, a network of conservation scientists. “The efforts so far have failed to help either humans or elephants,” he said.

The task force has recommended the establishment of conflict management committees to seek solutions tailored to local situations. “They’ll have to look at multiple options — there’s nothing that will work across the nation,” said Rangarajan.

Desai himself has transported two elephants from a forest near the village of the woman who lost her paddy in Karnataka’s Hasan district to a bigger forest 160km south. “We’ll have to wait and watch — we don’t want to relocate a problem from one place to another,” he said.

Sometimes, as a conservation scientist in Mysore has shown, simple technology will work only when implemented well. While fences and trenches are the obvious solutions to prevent elephants from entering farm land, they have usually failed to work.

In the past, rains have destroyed trenches, and fences built by government agencies haven’t lasted for various reasons.

M.D. Madhusudan and his colleagues from the Nature Conservation Foundation in Mysore are experimenting with a model in which a co-operative of 60 farmers has taken responsibility for maintaining fences built not along the boundary of the forest, but around each individual farm.

The task force has also called for a ban on elephants in circuses, a ban on trade in captive elephants and has recommended that religious institutions be sensitised to the improve living conditions of their elephants.


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