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A manmmoth task

Print edition : Mar 25, 2011 T+T-
A HERD OF elephants in the Dhikala grasslands of the Corbett National Park.-

A HERD OF elephants in the Dhikala grasslands of the Corbett National Park.-

In view of the growing threats to elephants, efforts are on to create a National Elephant Conservation Authority.

IT was a bright and warm summer afternoon in 1995, and about 250 elephants milled about peaceably on the banks of the Kabini river. They were feeding on the green carpets of grass, mostly comprising the nutritious and palatable Cynodon dactylon. The Kabini flows between Bandipur and Nagarhole, two premier protected areas of south India and I was watching the idyllic scene from a boat on the river. Accompanying me were 12 conservation officers from Vietnam who had come on a study tour to India and were evidently delighted by this grand sighting at the end of their safari. Their excitement was understandable as Vietnam then had a maximum of 500 elephants, which were being decimated for ivory and meat and were nearly impossible to see in the wild. Vietnam's elephants were also losing their habitat rapidly because of pressures from an increasing human population. Today the number of elephants in Vietnam has plummeted to less than a hundred.

On the Kabini, we watched in wonder as an adult female, possibly the mother, stood in one position and fed wherever she could reach from there, to keep a young calf, asleep on the ground, constantly in her shadow. Another adult cow elephant, which could have been the aunt, went around the mother and the calf in tight circles and fed close to them. The mother gave shade to the calf from the hot afternoon sun, and the aunt provided an extra cordon of safety essential in a place like Bandipur-Nagarhole, which has a high density of tigers, the only predator that occasionally preys on elephant calves.

India with its population of about 25,000 wild elephants enables us to enjoy such sights even now in many of our protected areas. Yet, degradation, characterised by an abundance of unpalatable species, fragmentation and shrinkage of forest cover to accommodate an ever increasing human population (1.1 billion now) and associated developmental activities, pose great threats to a wide range of species, including the tiger and the elephant. Nearly four decades ago, when tiger numbers fell below 2,000 animals, the Government of India launched Project Tiger. Serious and continuing decline prompted the government to create, in December 2005, the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), a statutory body with a mandate to stem the alarming decrease in tiger numbers at any cost. Seeing the growing threats to elephants, efforts are now on to create a National Elephant Conservation Authority (NECA) along the same lines. Project Elephant, established in 1992, is the precursor of the NECA. Approved and encouraged by Jairam Ramesh, perhaps the finest Minister so far to take charge of the Ministry of Environment and Forests, a 12-member Elephant Task Force chaired by Mahesh Rangarajan, a famous wildlife historian, has put forth its road map for establishing the NECA and saving elephants. Its 179-page report Gajah, securing the future of elephants in India has been drafted on the premise that India can secure the future of the elephant and its forest homes. The Chalukya scholar king Someswara III had set down in ink centuries ago that the nation with many elephants in its forests will be the one most secure. His belief is echoed in a two-stanza Thirukural written by the Tamil sage Thiruvalluvar 2,000 years ago that says: Clean water, fertile soil and mountains with dense forests are the real fortress (of a nation). Both imply the existence of an age-old ethic in the subcontinent that the real strength of a nation is its ecological security.

The report strongly recommends that the NECA should be a statutory authority (like the NTCA) through an amendment of the Wildlife (Protection) Act with administrative powers and legal backing to ensure elephant conservation. It is hoped that elephant conservation will be based on quality science and humane administration and the conservation of gajah and the welfare of prajah (people) will go together. It also suggests that the elephant be declared a National Heritage Animal; this was approved at the National Board for Wildlife held on October 13, 2010. Scientific information on a long-lived species like the elephant can come only through continuous research. The need for proper research methods to assess elephant populations has been identified as a priority issue in the report, and it has been suggested that a Consortium of Elephant Research and Estimation be created to this end.

On the basis of the information given in the report, I discuss a few points relevant for wild elephant conservation in India. Elephants in India are distributed across four large regions, each with several sub-populations which range from small herds in isolated forest patches to populations several hundred strong. The population at the tri-junction of three southern States (Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu), which has the luxury of living in a large interconnected landscape (Brahmagiri-Nilgiris-Eastern Ghats) of nearly 15,000 square kilometres, may be close to 8,500 animals. This is the largest elephant population in Asia, and therefore this landscape, which also has significant populations of other charismatic species such as the tiger, the dhole and the gaur, warrants the best possible protection and management. The total range occupied by elephants in India is around 110,000 sq km, which is larger than the range occupied by the tiger (about 98,000 sq km). Within this vast elephant range, 10 elephant ranges and 32 elephant reserves covering 65,000 sq km have been identified, which are the same areas identified under Project Elephant. Over 40 per cent of the elephant reserve areas are neither within protected areas nor in reserve forests. In order to ensure conservation, therefore, it is suggested that the elephant reserves be given the status of ecologically sensitive areas.

The report has rightly recommended that efforts be made to strengthen identified corridors between critical populations. Corridors, by connecting smaller areas, make the landscapes larger, enabling them to support more individuals of a particular species than smaller areas can. Threats of extinction to a larger population are less. The establishment of corridors needs political will and money. Fortunately, the Compensatory Afforestation Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA) funds, to the tune of Rs.11,000 crore, at the disposal of the Government of India, will be tapped for the purchase of corridor lands as well as to augment the current area under corridors.

A corridor for elephants, particularly for cow groups, will be beneficial to several other species. Corridors are very often situated outside protected areas and in such instances efforts to secure corridors would include creation of conservation reserves and community reserves. Attempts will also be made to make the habitats outside protected areas favourable for elephant conservation through ecosystem services payment and conservation easements. This is going to be extremely challenging as most people who live in elephant habitats are very poor, owning little to nothing in terms of landholdings. To share the benefits of conservation with these people, to secure their support for the protection of potentially dangerous elephants, would need enormous planning and dedication on the part of the teams working for elephant conservation.

Aspirants to establish corridors should keep in mind that the government's track record in creating and legalising corridors in India is not good at all. In Uttarakhand, we have not been able to establish the Chilla-Motichur corridor across the Ganga for the last 25 years; recently we lost the Gola river corridor as well, one that could have linked the famous Corbett Tiger Reserve with the forests to the east of Sharada and would have consolidated a landscape that would have had immense potential for large mammal conservation. Neither have we made progress with the Singara elephant corridor in the buffer zone of the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, Tamil Nadu, even though the High Court verdict given in December 2009 was indisputably in favour of elephants. There is an urgent need to put appropriate signages in all the identified corridors so that the local people get to know about the importance of that piece of land and the officials of the area do not allow developments that would be inimical to elephant conservation.

Sadly, even the Chief Wildlife Warden of Uttarakhand did not know about the importance of the Gola corridor, in spite of the scientific information available, and allowed the corridor to be overtaken by development. Interestingly enough, a group of elephants was recorded to have moved across this Gola corridor as recently as the last week of September 2010. It is hoped that this fact may yet wake the Uttarakhand government up from its slumber.

Among the many threats to elephants, two need to be especially highlighted. One is the prevalence of degraded habitats in most parts of the elephants' range, which is one reason why they move out of the forests to raid crops which are more palatable and nutritious. According to information compiled by Project Elephant, at least 500,000 families suffer from crop depredation by elephants every year. Habitat degradation is indicated by the abundance of unpalatable species (such as Lantana camara, Cassia spectabilis, Chromolaena odorata, Mikania scandens, Mimosa invisa, Opuntia dillenii, Parthenium hysteophorus, Pogostemon bengalensis, Pteridium aquilineum and Spathobolus roxburghii), lack of regeneration of palatable species, and persistent biotic disturbances such as livestock grazing and uncontrolled wood-cutting by the local people. The calf on the bank of the Kabini was able to sleep peacefully because no one was either grazing or cutting wood nearby.

I would urge planting of thousands of grown-up saplings of palatable species (for example, Albizzia lebbek, Bambusa arundinacea, Bauhinia purpurea, B. racemosa, Dendrocalamus strictus, Grewia elastica, G. tilaefolia, Lannea coromandelica and Zizyphus xylopyrus), may be under the cover of Lantana, at the onset of the rainy season. This type of a habitat restoration programme necessitates reviving the art of raising these species in Forest Department nurseries where now largely unpalatable species such as Pongamia pinnata and Acacia auriculiformis are grown. Two grass species that can augment the availability of forage inside the forest are Arundo donax (crude protein 16.6 per cent), which can be planted in moist areas, and Panicum maximum or Guinea grass, which is a useful exotic species. These restoration programmes can provide jobs to the thousands of poor people living in elephant habitats.

When the situation of forage and water availability is improved, there will be a reduction in incidents of crop raiding and the resultant human-elephant conflict, which now take a toll of nearly 400 people and 150 elephants on an average every year.

Bulls, as they are not burdened with the task of protecting calves as cows are, often take to crop raiding, and information gleaned so far indicates that such bulls do not live long, being among the first to be killed in retaliatory episodes. Problem populations, such as those in North Bengal, Goalpara, Sonitpur, Keonjhar, Kudagu and Hasan, which cause human deaths and enormous property damage, need the immediate attention of the government.

Since culling is ruled out in our country for ethical reasons and all other methods currently in use such as drives, translocation and capture for captivity have limited applicability, the government should urgently and seriously explore means to practise reproductive control of elephant populations, particularly when they are involved in escalating conflict. We should not hesitate to accept the fact that the present elephant population is too large for its degraded habitat and any further increase in the population will not be good either for the elephants or the people.

The number of sexually and socially mature tuskers in the Indian forests could be less than 1,000, and protection of these tuskers becomes a paramount task of the government. Protection needs to be done at six levels: a dedicated and trained team of well-paid and motivated staff should be put in place to patrol the forests; the staff should be encouraged to take pictures of the tuskers in their areas and use the pictures for monitoring them; a team of honest, trained and motivated officers is needed to inspire them; local poachers should be converted to guardians of wildlife; the kingpins of poaching should be brought to book; and the international ban on ivory trade should be retained.

There is a recommendation in the report that even non-foresters with the required qualifications can be appointed officers in key positions in the NECA. This gives an opportunity to those who are very critical of elephant conservation programmes in the country to join the NECA and set things right. Nevertheless, the bulk of the officers for elephant conservation will come from the government's forest services. It is therefore necessary that a capsule course on elephant conservation with a minimum of 10 lectures is arranged for both Indian Forest Service and State Forest Service officer probationers. It would be ideal if elephant biologists like Ajay Desai and Christy A. Williams, who have spent years studying wild elephants and are passionate about elephant conservation, lead this course.

It is difficult to imagine India without wild elephants, and if India cannot save elephants, I doubt any other country can. We should, with utmost sincerity, endeavour to make elephant habitats much more secure and productive, protect the elephants, care for the poor who live in elephant habitats, and enable the remaining magnificent tuskers to roam the forests without the fear of persecution at the hands of man.

A.J.T. Johnsingh, Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore and WWF-India.