Time for action

Time for action

At a time when human-elephant conflict is increasing both in intensity and reach, we should look at long-term alternatives that are friendly to both ecology and livelihood of people, opines Nimesh Ved.

Memories of days in Garo Hills (Meghalaya) come forth — learning of elephants, coming across elephant dung at places one never thought they could go to, of talking with people who lived amongst elephants and more. Meghalaya is one of the 16 elephant-bearing states and the Garo Hills population stands at approximately 1,700. Today, India has approximately 30,000 elephants and as we lose the habitats, the species move to new lands.

Today, human-elephant conflict is increasing both in intensity and reach. Every once in a few months, news of elephants run over by a train or electrocuted remind us of this! I was at a two-day meet on Asian Elephants, focusing on Assam and neighbouring states, to discuss the concerns and chalk out a way ahead. 

A disappearing act
One of the major things under focus were the disappearing populations of Asian Elephants. If we look at Mizoram, there has been only one female elephant in Dampa Tiger Reserve for the past few years. The population in Saiha district had come down to one about a decade ago and remained the same for a few years till the individual crossed River Kaladan (Kolodyne) during the dry months and moved on to Lawngtlai district (Ngengpui Wildlife Sanctuary).  The ironical fact is that Saiha means elephant teeth, ivory, in local language, but it doesn’t house any elephants now. Ngengpui today is home to the only herd in the state and the number is not more than 20. We have surely lost Asian Elephants from other landscapes in the region as well during the recent past.

But strangely, these vanishing populations do not seem to get the attention they warrant!

As we discuss elephants in these states, we invariably come to the topic of jhum (shifting cultivation). Do we continue to make suggestions on weaning people away from jhum without sufficient clarity on what these would entail to? Have we thought about the alternatives that are friendly to both local ecology and livelihood of people? In Garo Hills, this ‘weaning away from jhum’ had crops like cashew nut and rubber carpet the region. As a consequence, the elephant habitat was wiped out.

That these crops increased people’s dependence on uncertainties of market forces and posed the challenge of food security is another discussion. Today, when science of the day appears to have finally accepted (albeit, partially) that jhum retains significant biodiversity values, what exactly are the alternate land uses that we are encouraging? Consultations veered on to managing an elephant landscape in a scientific manner. Data, analysis and findings were presented to the effect. I was curious on how this would translate to action on ground. In other words how, if at all, was this learning shared and discussed with other stakeholders in the landscape and as a corollary, put to use in day-to-day management? But in such studies, human responses couldn’t be assumed to be constant.

If one is discussing elephants in this region, one has to talk of Kaziranga National Park, Assam. For instance, the topic of the amount of food and water needed to feed the 1,200 elephants at Kaziranga was brought up in the discussions. It’s time to take a stock of the natural resources too. The spiralling numbers of large mammals is befuddling. Be it Asian elephants, wild water buffaloes or one-horned rhinos, they all need our attention. But are numbers the only measure of success? We need to look at the entire Kaziranga landscape for sustainable conservation of the ecosystem.

Needless to say, increasing instances of human-elephant conflict demand some solutions. Such solutions could involve either technology or people or both. The mention of growing crops for elephants with a view to reduce conflict was met with surprise. While the opinion that India will need to either capture or cull elephants in certain landscapes bearing high levels of conflict was enthusiastically contested, the suggestion on investing efforts in tea-garden tourism for elephant conservation left me confused. Tourism as a conservation solution is ironical.

It is also possible that the Monitoring of Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE) programme may be implemented in the country again. I recalled our experiences in Garo Hills, when we had reported six deaths and it hadn’t gone down well with the authorities concerned.
But there were some suggestions that hit me hard. For instance, corridors were referred to as ‘accidents of geography’ and economy as ‘being the driving force in the landscapes’.

The call for taking action was definitely high. But there was something that was left unsaid. Was there reference towards better channelising of conservation resources or the need to take up activities in the nature of litigation to save the remaining patches of habitat? Most of the times, as someone suggested, “there is very little connect between meetings like this and the situation on ground.”

In such critical scenarios, we also need to look beyond the data. It could mean  changing the narrative or looking at the conflict from a livelihood perspective. It can also be about documenting the issue in stories instead of numbers in order to get the whole picture.

Asian Elephant species is one of our most studied and discussed one and it is high time to get on to the nuances. Our lifestyles and their impact on the elephant-bearing landscapes needs to be closely analysed. We could probably start right at our meet: maybe look at the number of plastic water bottles we had trashed during the course of the conference. It all starts with one small step, after all.

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