India's Elephants in Peril

India’s elephants, as much as tigers the country’s symbol, are dying in ever-greater numbers as industrialization, deforestation, the pressure of human settlement and shrinking food resources cut into their numbers.

Although the world's concern has risen over the fate of India's tigers, the descending numbers of India's elephants have not caused alarm. They are not listed as endangered species. The Federal Ministry of Environment and Forests estimated the population of wild elephants at 26,413 in 2002, the last figure available. Although officials say the population has risen, the World Wildlife Fund believes that India’s elephant population has fallen by 50 percent over the last two decades. Statistical estimation on either tigers or elephants is not sound.

Obviously, as man encroaches, the elephant population faces problems, not least because they love to break into human settlements and poach not only crops but vats of homemade liquor. An Indian elephant needs some 500 square miles to roam, consumes 250 kilograms of leaves and wild fruits and drinks as much as 180 liters of water a day. Indiscriminate felling of trees and development projects cuts their habitat. Although the federal government has written and passed laws, implementation is in the hands of state governments, which often look the other way when poachers strike.

There is nowhere that this devastation is hitting harder than the northern fringe of West Bengal on the Assam border, where a pervasive despair overwhelms Ram Singh Thapa, a trained Nepali wildlife tourist guide at Gorumara Forest in Dooars, the tea estate-dominated region of West Bengal. So for far this year, 51 of the beasts have been killed in the area along the West Bengal-Assam border, 31 of them due to collisions with trains. By contrast, in the 34 years from 1974 to 2008, only 36 had died from trains. But the pachyderms were accustomed to relatively slow-moving trains on meter-gauge rails, not those on the broad-gauge trains that have replaced them and which run at upwards of 100 km per hour.

Also, says Dr Sheelant Patel, the chief conservator of forests in North Bengal, the animals had previously learned to time their crossings against train schedules. But freight trains, which don’t run on fixed schedules, appear to confuse them. Although the state forest department has repeatedly asked the North Eastern Frontier Railway to lower the speed of their trains, they haven’t done so, she says.

Rajen Pradhan, a village council official at Malbazar, representing the Communist Party of India, is more critical. "This is an unpardonable cruelty on innocent animals,” he says. “They may take time to adjust their walking pace with the fast-moving trains. Till then, train-drivers should be mandated to control train speeds. Unfortunately, the NFR higher-ups bother little for regulating speeds of moving trains along the elephant corridors.”

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"As per 2007, 300 to 350 elephants roamed the forests of North Bengal from Baromisha to Bagdogram,” Dr Patel said in an interview. “The death of 51 tuskers this year so far is more than the average annual addition by birth of 20, including migrants who come from not only Assam, but Myanmar.”

There lies cause of alarm. Tapan Deb, an expert on tea estate labour issues and an observer of the conflict between man and elephants said in an interview that the toll may well rise to above 55, with a month left in the calendar year. A different species, grayer in color and with shorter hindquarters, has been grazing near the Dalgaon tea estate. The new arrivals, perhaps as many as 15, have not yet habituated themselves to the passage of the trains, he says.

There is no denying that economic damage due to the human-elephant conflict including avoidable social costs runs into the billions. "The problem of human-elephant conflict is region-specific,” Deb says. “Just to say that large-scale infrastructural projects aggravate the conflict looks like arm-chair theorizing. We don't have any such projects here but the elephant menace is a major cause of worries in tea estates. I can name five tea estates that face this problem seriously in Birpara. They come in herds, not for uprooting tea bushes always. They are fond of the country liquor Hariya, a common household-fermented drink among tribals."

There are other concerns. Farmers, exasperated by the depredation to their crops, have been mixing cyanide into millet balls, especially in areas where the influx is a comparatively recent phenomenon. In Karnataka, 25 elephants have been killed in the last six months, authorities say. The High Court of Karnataka recently directed state and federal officials to investigate the deaths of nine in just seven days and file a response to public interest litigation filed by environmentalists.

Forest officials, however, tend to brush off such enquiries. In 2007, five elephants were found lying dead near a rivulet at Barovisha in Dooars in West Bengal, only to have forest officials say they had been hit by lightning. Wildlife activist Biswajit Burman reacted sharply.

"How could five elephants be there together within an area of 500 metres and were struck so devastatingly by a single bolt?” he asked. “Why didn't their bodies have a single burn mark and why had all died near a river? It's nothing but case of poisoning. Those wild elephants might have entered fields nearby as forest coverage decreases drastically. The standing paddy might have been poisoned with a heavy dose of pesticides. You know well that the first sign of poisoning is thirst and those innocent animals could be rushing to the rivulet but died before reaching there.”

Dr Patel said one case is under investigation but that “We can't say anything until the probe is over.”

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Nepali police also reportedly killed elephants along the Bengal-Nepali border after the beasts entered villages and killed villagers despite the fact that elephants are protected as an endangered species in Nepal. However, shrinking forests and encroachment on elephant territory has often forced them to look for food in human settlements. At least six people were killed in two days in Southern Nepal in two days in September by elephants.

The World Bank-World Wildlife Alliance for Forest Conservation & Sustainable Use recently criticized massive investment for large scale infrastructure projects in elephant habitat. The Trans-Asian Highway, which is proposed to extend from Tokyo all the way to Bulgaria, passing through both Koreas, China and countries across Southeast and South Asia, is almost certain to exacerbate the problem. US$25 billion has been spent or committed as of 2007, with an additional US$ 18 billion needed for upgrades and improvements to 26,000 km of highway. Several large hydro-electric projects are also underway and could spell disaster for the elephant life support system.

The WWF coordinator for Asian elephant and rhino conservation, Christy Williams, charged that banks and investors have failed to provide leadership to human-elephant conflict by adding mitigation options into their large infrastructure plans.

Elephants will forage on a wide variety of local flora but they detest species like segue and eucalyptus which were planted in recent decades, says Thapa, the Nepali tourism guide. Elephants to him and his family are a divine symbol, worshiped as a deity. Planting species that elephants won’t eat in areas where they are a nuisance would keep them out, he says.

India’s Ministry of Environment and Forests and Ministry of Tourism stress the preservation of elephants in four new reserve forests Assam and Meghalaya which together protect more than 7,000 elephants. There are also 10 major elephant reserves in Orissa, Tamil Nadu and Assam. In addition, elephant corridors – narrow strips of land that allow elephants to move from one habitat patch to another, have been established across the country, the latest in Karnataka.

But in the billion dollar question over management of the human-elephant conflict, which is inevitable given the clash of decreasing forest land and the rising pressure of human settlement, it appears increasingly likely that the elephants, storied in India’s pre-British colonial and even pre-Mogul history, will be the losers.