World Elephant Day: India’s jumbos stare at a worrying future
Today only about 27,000 wild elephants remain in India, as opposed to a million a decade ago. There has been a 98 per cent nose-dive in their population, according to research
- India is one of the 17 mega diverse countries of the world.
- It is home to 7-8 per cent of the world’s recorded species from top predators such as the Asiatic lions, Bengal tigers to large herbivores such as the Asian elephant and one-horned rhino.
- This rich fauna has not just been an integral part of India’s environmental history but has also been instrumental in shaping several indigenous cultures. In fact, many religions in India stem from animism, which entails that soul exists in animals and plants.
- Elephants have enjoyed a special place in India’s culture and tradition. They were used as a means of transport for the royalties and to fight battles, as has been captured by various frescoes.
- Most important, however, is the status of elephant as a deity in the form of Lord Ganesha. For over 70 per cent of the people in the country, elephants hold a religious importance.
- According to this, one might presume that India’s elephants enjoy a high degree of protection. While elephants do enjoy the highest status in the Wildlife Protection Act of India, 1972, as Schedule-I species, unfortunately the situation on the ground paints a different picture altogether.
- India is home to over 50 per cent population of Asian elephants in the world, making it the last strong-hold of the species. However, their condition seems dire, as they face an all-encompassing threat such as shrinkage of their forest ranges, habitat defragmentation, poaching for their body parts and captivity, and anthropogenic pressure.
- Wildlife SOS, established in 1995, started working with elephants in 2010 to save the species in India. The initial efforts of the project were focused on rescuing captive elephants across India that was facing severe abuse and cruelty by their captors.
- Unlike their African cousins, poaching of elephants for captivity is a serious threat to the survival of the species. An elephant removed from the wild is simply an elephant that could have bred in the future and contributed to the strengthening of the wild elephant population.
- In captivity, an elephant tends to face unfavorable and stressful conditions which greatly hamper their physical and mental well-being. Captive elephants are routinely found to be suffering from health issues such as foot-rot, arthritis and compromised nutrition.
- There are 2,454 captive elephants in India, according to the census conducted by Project Elephant in 2018.
- This number is likely to decrease as the elephants will subsequently age and the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, forbids the capture of new calves to keep the captive elephant population afloat.
Loss of habitat
- Access to veterinary aid is a rarity for most keepers. Often, simple injuries become chronic due to untimely or lack of treatment.
- Another big challenge that elephants in India face is the increasing space crunch. With an exploding population, more and more invasions are being made into the historical habitats of elephants, which have led to increasing habitat fragmentation.
- For large herbivores such as elephants who consume an equivalent of 5-10 per cent of their body mass in terms of food, they require large swathes of forests to sustain their herds and migrate to continuously feed and to also give a chance for the vegetation to re grow.
- Shrinking forests means lesser availability of food, which incentivizes the movement of elephants out of forested lands to crop lands. Thus, they indulge in crop raiding, which brings them into conflict with people. This often ends with both humans and elephants dying, and a quick change in the discourse of elephants takes place as they become ‘nuisances’ from ‘deities.’
- When grazing goes unchecked, it can quickly eliminate grass in an area. This means less food for both livestock and wildlife, including elephants, and leads to soil erosion that impacts the growth of grass in the future. It is important to identify and allocate grazing land for livestock away from wildlife areas, unless tight controls can be established.
- The ivory trade is fuelling organized crime and insecurity as traffickers smuggle tusks through the same networks as other high value illegal goods such as drugs. Ultimately the trade is driven by demand for ivory in consumer countries, mostly in the East, where it is sought after as a status symbol and an investment.
- Elephant homelands must necessarily be interconnected and vast given their vast size, they need large quantities of food, and this inevitably translates to vast homelands.
- Right of passage, unlike many other mammals, elephant is nomadic in habit. They have to move peripatetically as the food around them is exhausted.
- Security blanket, the killing of elephants may have started in the Neanderthal times. Reasons were and are varied including human security, food, trinkets, medicine and ornamentation. The animal possesses one of the most stunning pairs of incisors that the animal world produces, tusks that man has considered white gold. The illegal poaching of elephants for their tusks has fuelled an incessant and increasing slaughter of animals making many, if not most populations of elephants insecure.
- Reduce human conflict, as human dwellings and livelihoods creep inexorably towards and into wild lands, the encounters between humans and elephants are bound to increase. Under such conditions, man-elephant interaction is more often than not termed man-elephant conflict.
- Recognize their societies; Elephants are big, intelligent and nomadic. They are also highly social beings. Any human-led management effort that attempts to alter such societies and kinships among elephants is bound to fail. Only long-term studies can lead to better understanding of such clan and kin behavior and thus informed management.
- End their enslavement, intelligent beings such as Homo sapiens consider capture and enforced enslavement as a brutal, inhumane and often unnecessary source of suffering. Elephants must consider it quite similarly, even if they do not possess the language in which they can convey this to the human species.
Today as our physical world is changing fast, it is important to take a moment to reflect on and reinvent our relationship with elephants.
Conservation and welfare of elephants in India provides us with a critical lens to develop holistic policies that work both for humans as well as animals. Tied to the survival of elephants in India is the survival of India’s biodiversity!