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Elephantine issue

| | in Sunday Pioneer
Elephantine issue

The over 40 jumbo deaths due to unnatural causes in the last 100 days highlight the importance of the 101 elephant corridors in the country. Conservationists tell SHALINI SAKSENA that these narrow linear passages can go a long way in mitigating elephant-human conflicts that have been on a constant and alarming rise

Elephant-human conflict has been on the rise. Herds in search of food have entered human habitats and damaged houses and crops. People consider the animal a problem since it leaves behind a trail of destruction. Also, unlike the tiger or the rhino, elephants are not State-protected. When they come in contact with humans, there is apathy. Elephant killing is, thus, common.

Given this scenario, it is not surprising to come across reports of 40 elephants have died in the last 100 days (December 2017) due to electrocution, poisoning or trains mowing them down. The reason for apathy towards elephants, conservationists say, is due to pressure from increasing human population, consequential developmental activities and ivory poaching.

“Despite its long cultural, religious and historic relationship with mankind, human greed, insensitivity and lack of ecological awareness has led to the crisis. The once harmonious relationship between elephants and people has all but broken down. There is no sound land-use policy for wildlife conservation,” Dr Sandeep Tiwari, programme manager, IUCN SSC Asian Elephant Specialist Group, asserts.

One is told that unlike National Parks that are well-protected, elephant reserves enjoy no privilege. Take the case of Assam. The State has around 500 elephants and around 10,000 sq km of forest cover. Only a small portion falls under national parks and sanctuaries. The jumbo is vulnerable outside the protected zone.

Also, it needs large areas and moves from one zone to another in a pattern. He is known to have a great memory and takes the same path year after year — a ‘corridor’ that it knows and thinks is safe. The engineers know this too. Therefore roads and rail tracks are laid in corridors as this means stable grading.

“The animal will never tread on unstable land. It chooses its step wisely. Roads need to be constructed on such stable gradient. So it is easier for engineers to lay a road in an area being used by elephants. But what one ends up doing is taking over the animal’s route. Human movement is unplanned but can be regulated. We are not living in the 15th century. We have the technology to come up with workable alternatives like elevating a road or making an underpass for vehicles or trains,” Vivek Menon, founder-trustee and CEO of Wildlife Trust of India, says.

He tells you that the elephant is not as much in the news as the tiger is because the tiger has captured public imagination while the elephant has not. “I joke with people and tell them that since the tiger has eyes forward facing like humans there is more fascination for it. Elephants, on the other hand, have eyes on the side. Having said that, we have evidence dating back 4,000 years involving man-elephant bonds. We revere Lord Ganesh but not the elephant. Ancient man worshipped things that were an obstacle for him — fire, water and wild elephant. While the animal appears in our textiles and art, it doesn’t garner the need for conservation and protection,” Menon says.

“Elephants are like us in lifespan. We have an ageold bond — like a marriage that is difficult to break,” Menon adds. The problem is that people are not aware what a corridor is. They think that it is something that has to be created which is not the case. The corridor is already in existence being used by elephants for decades. People have different ideas of what a corridor is. One has to explain it to them.

“The conflict arises when the animal is confronted. If you allow the elephant to pass by peacefully, there won’t be any confrontation. The animal knows how to move in tight places and it can do so without damaging property or the crop. There are certain other issues like a certain kind of crop it loves and will go for. In such a case, the solution is simple — don’t plant that crop in that one km patch. I am not against development. Since the corridor is only a km wide, there is need to only take small corrections like building a bridge for the trains to pass over,” Menon tells you.

What exactly is an elephant corridor? Is it a man-made path created for the elephants or is it an ageold route that the animal has been taking? “It is a linear landscape that connects two or more patches of viable elephant habitats that were connected in historic times; it is meant as a conduit for elephants. It’s a passage between two large habitats,” Dr Tiwari says.

M Ananda Kumar, a scientist at the Mysore-based Nature Conservation Foundation, says the issue is not just limited to the elephant corridor. “There is need to see the larger picture. One has to first monitor how frequently the corridor is being used, how many elephants are using it and how it is benefiting the animal and whether the movement is seasonal or otherwise. Two large forest areas being connected by a patch of land establishes a physical connectivity. This is important not just for the pachyderm but for other wildlife too. This can only be done by field studies. This is where the problem lies. We have scant information. Then there is need to establish functional connectivity as well,” Kumar says.

Suppose there is an area that has been used by elephants for 100 years — much before people started using it. If in such areas dramatic changes in the path used by the elephants are made, the problem arises. “The solution is not that one should tell the people to settle elsewhere. It lies in creating a system where the elephant can use the same path without coming in contact with humans and move across two large forest areas. This way, we establish functional connectivity. This connectivity is missing today,” Kumar explains.

Given the fact that there are around 27,000-odd Asian elephants in India, with most of them outside of the protected area, there is need to look beyond the PA-centric approach.

Like other wild animals, elephants avoid humans but they come in conflict since they require a much larger area. If left to the elephant, there would be a human death every day. But this is not the case as pachyderms avoid man.

The conflict arises when the elephant tries to defend itself. It mock charges, makes rumbling sounds and trumpets in warning for humans. “Most killings by an elephant are due to accidental presence of the man in its area or the animal being chased from the other side. The elephant is already in an aggressive mood and an attack on the human before him is imminent. Deaths also occur if the human is blocking the elephant’s passage or if there is a calf in the herd and its mother feels that the human is a threat,” Kumar says.

While the elephant-human conflict is a nationwide problem, each State has its own unique problem though there are some commonalities that run across all landscapes. First, the conflict leads to loss of human lives — around 400 people die every year. Around 100 elephants are killed too. The saving of lives — both human and elephants is an important component. To prevent damage to property — building or crop is the other.

“We want to solve two problems with a single solution. The circumstances leading to the conflict are different. There can’t be just one solution since the landscape is different, use of land is different, people are different, cropping patterns are different, elephant population is different. With so many differences, why a common solution? However, there are some common problems across landscape. Most people died because they didn’t register elephant presence. Also, the deaths occurred either early morning or evening with many incidents taking place on the roads. If we try to understand this, it will be easier to prevent human deaths,” Kumar tells you who has introduced an SMS service as an early warning system (EWS).

At present, this facility is only available in certain local areas of Karnataka and work across the country provided field work is done. The reason for the SMS is to prevent loss of human lives by accidental encounters. People find out where the elephants are and take steps to protect their property and crops. The idea started by telecasting news alerts on local TV.

 “When we have a warning system in case of earthquakes and or typhoons, we can have a system that can apply to elephants as well. Usually, if you take a solution to the people, they are not very open to it but if you ask them to come up with one, they do come up with an idea that works for them. We asked the people in a plantation what they could do to prevent the conflict. One manager said that people watched local news — cable network. We approached the network who charged Rs 2,000 per month and relayed news related to elephant movement with a mobile number that people could use to warn others,” Kumar says.

But with the DTH, the cable subscription fell drastically. That’s when the SMSes started. For the last six years over a 1,000 SMSes are sent as EWS on a daily basis in the local language.

Since the Karnataka Forest Department is proactive, it helps scientists like Kumar who work are ground-zero. “All the programmes and measures that we take are in collaboration with the department. They are open to our ideas. This mindset is important. If not, we would be stuck with digging trenches and putting electric fences. The money involved in this exercise is huge. The worst part is that in six months the fence doesn’t work and one ends up losing the trust of the people who feel that the fence will keep the jumbo away. The SMS is a great way to help people avoid the elephants,” Kumar opines.

Whether circumventing the elephant corridor will reduce the conflict is too early to say but it will definitely help the elephant. After all, there is no guarantee that one can prevent elephants from damaging the crops at night. But Kumar is quick to point out that there is need to carry out a study to find whether the corridor actually minimises the conflict. “There is no country-wide data that the conflict is on the rise. But there is definitely a perception that it is,” Kumar says.

With so many elephants dying, does this mean that the animal is under threat? “We are losing elephants across the country for many reasons. Dams are being constructed in elephant landscapes and forest cover is reducing. These are tough times for elephants and humans,” Kumar says and opines that people living in close proximity with the elephants have a lot of awareness. What is required, he tells you, is for people to take responsibility.

“People participation is important. When we work with the community, they come forward to be part of the management. Decision-making process should not be unilateral. By hearing the voice of the people, it will not create the awareness and but also give rise to greater people participation which is urgently needed,” Kumar says.

Menon agrees and says that individuals need to do what they can. “You are a reporter. You do what you do best — write about the animal. Everyone should do what they can at their level, according to their skills and abilities. Sometimes regional media creates havoc with headlines like ‘Killer Elephant in Town’. One can turn this story around. One can do an article on why he has killed — because you have gone and cut into the forest and moved into his area. There is need to have a more holistic approach while writing articles. When it comes to corridors, the issue is not about increasing the number. When it comes to tigers, number is a concern. Not for elephants. For this animal, it is space. If the country can sustain 25,000 to 30,000 let it be this number. Increasing the number is only going to increase the conflict. We need to wipe out the human and elephant killings. We are not trying to increase the numbers, we are trying to end the killings.

“We have many models that are case specific. The generic solution is — the animal is huge give it space. One must remember that the animal has a pre-programmed memory. If its great grandfather moved in a certain path, the coming generations will do the same. It will not go here and there. Its movement is precise. It will not go where it doesn’t want to unlike humans who go where they should not. If you block, it will turn back and taken a precise route. The only time its movement is not precise is when it is being chased or the herd breaks that is when it runs amuck,” Menon says.

Like Kumar, Tiwari feels the solution lies in empowering local stake holders and ensuring that every corridor is monitored forever.

“Engage through public campaigns and spot interventions. Sign boards on both sides of a corridor will educate people and drivers. Second, policy advocacy work with the Government to legally protect corridors and work with them to secure wherever appropriate. Third, sensitise policy makers and people’s representatives so that they ensure the wildlife habitats are protected and corridors secured through appropriate law enforcement. Four, purchase land and/or voluntary rehabilitate people where there is need. Finally, community-owned lands need to be set aside through bilateral benefit sharing models,” Tiwari says.

Corridor challenges

  • Of the available forest cover of 697,898 sq km in India (Forest Survey of India 2015), only about 110,000 sq km is available to elephants. Of this, about 65,000 sq km is notified as Elephant Reserves. About 27% of Elephant Reserves are legally protected under the Protected Area network.
  • A total of 101 elephant corridors have now been identified. Of the identified corridors, 15 (14.85%) are inter-State corridors.
  • Of the identified corridors, 36.6% are in North-eastern and northern West Bengal and 27.7% in southern India.
  • The highest number of corridors is present in northern West Bengal, which has one corridor for every 150 sq km of available elephant habitat, North-east India has about one corridor for every 1565 sq km. Southern India has one corridor for every 1,410 sq km; North-western India has one corridor for every 500 sq km; and Central India has a corridor for every 840 sq km.
  • Of the identified corridors, 57.5% are ecologically of high priority and 41.5% medium priority. Based on conservation feasibility, 38.6% are of high feasibility, 51.5% of medium and 9.9% of low feasibility.
  • The severely affected  corridors are in Central India where almost 88% of the corridors are jointly under forest, agriculture and settlements and only 4% of the corridors are completely forest.
  • About 46.5% of the corridors in southern India are without any settlements. In North-western India, 36.4% of the corridors are without settlements. In northern West Bengal, about 57.2% of the corridors are with 1-3 settlements. In north eastern India, about 52.2% of the corridors are with 1-3 settlements. In central India, 36% of the corridors have one to three settlements.
  • Almost 66.3% of the corridors have highways (national and/or State) passing through them. This restricts elephant movement.
  • Among the identified corridors, 28.7% have been encroached upon.
  • Almost 69.3% of all corridors are regularly used by elephants, either around the year or in a particular season. Some 24.75% of the corridors are used occasionally and 5.95% are rarely used.

The conflict

  • November 19, 2017: Two Asian elephants were hit and killed by a passenger train near Guwahati
  • December 11, 2017; A train struck and killed five elephants as they were crossing over tracks at a tea plantation in North-east India
  • December 9, 2017: Five adult elephants and a calf were crushed to death by a train in Assam. The elephants were hit by the Guwahati-Naharlagun Express when the herd was trying to cross the rail line
  • A data by Elephant Census 2017 revealed that the population of Asian elephants has declined in the last five years. As per the Census, elephants numbered 27,312 across 23 States. This means a decline of about 10% as the population has decreased by about 3,000, compared to the last Census in 2012, when it was estimated at around 30,000
  • A total of 655 elephants were killed between 2009-10 and 2016-17  poisoning killed 44, poaching 101, train accidents 120 and electrocution 390
  • Environment Ministry data had revealed that in the last three years, at least one human life was lost every day due to conflict with elephants and tigers. A total of 1,144 human deaths were recorded due to conflict with tigers and elephants in 1,143 days.
  • In Assam, the Forest Department estimates 48 people have been killed by elephants and 70 elephants had died in this conflict in Assam in the first 11 months of 2017 — a State which has witnessed decrease of forest cover of 3,000 sq km in last 28 years. Over 500 elephants and 785 people had died in this conflict between 2006 and 2016
  • As many as 30 elephants killed by trains in West Bengal in the last five years till December 15, 2017



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