A crucial trunk call

Conservation

A crucial trunk call

India has the distinction of harbouring the largest Asian elephant population anywhere in the world. With an estimated population of 26,000 elephants, it amounts to 50 per cent of the world’s population. These mega herbivores survive over an area of about 110,000 sq km in the country. Of this, about 65,000 sq kms have been declared 32 elephant reserves (ER) spread across several protected areas (PAs), reserved forests and private lands. Securing this landscape in pursuit of saving this flagship species is a challenging and daunting task. This is particularly taxing in a country which is seeing an ever-expanding economy and over a billion people competing for space, some of it with elephants.

The increased human-elephant conflict that has caused casualties on both sides along with loss of thousands of hectares of cropland has brought the issue into the limelight.

Hence an Elephant Task Force (ETF) was set up by the central government to suggest long-term priorities for elephant conservation.

Interestingly, the task force was headed by a wildlife historian and political analyst which is an indication of the issue with elephant conservation that encompasses the broader social milieu.

The report was developed based on country-wide consultations with a wide array of people including people affected by elephants, elected representatives, officials of forest departments, wildlife biologists, conservation and welfare activists, mahouts, veterinarians, temple committees and elephant owners striving for a democratic process.

It is commendable that the report was made accessible to the public by uploading it on the ministry’s website.

The ETF has given important, practically implementable recommendations addressing the most burning issues of elephant conservation.

Atypical of any government appointed committees, the report is critical about the lack of focus and attention at the highest level of the government and calls for an administrative overhaul. The Elephant Task Force comments that though the Project Elephant was set up in 1992 it has been “unable to take up leadership on elephant conservation.” To give teeth to Project Elephant, ETF suggests setting up of the National Elephant Conservation Authority (NECA), a statutory body, with a proposed budget of Rs 600 crore under the 12th five year plan. The ETF recommends recruitment of non-governmental personnel with requisite skills to be appointed in the NECA.

To improve governance in management, Reserve Level Management Advisory Committees comprising elected representatives, conservationists and others which should hold public hearings are to be set up. Independent evaluation of the ERs with performance indicators are recommended to bring in transparency.

Revamping research methods

Elephants need standardised peer-reviewed protocols for population estimations. Hence the report calls for a critical evaluation of the current population estimation methods on scientific grounds. Owing to the vastness of elephant habitat in the country, the Task Force suggests a combination of methods for non-PAs and more intensive surveys for select sites to get robust density estimations. Other scientific measures suggested include development of national elephant mortality database, elephant reserve research stations and fellowships to students to encourage research on multiple dimensions of elephant conservation.

Defragmenting elephant habitats
Elephant habitats in the country are being fragmented at a monstrous scale. The report has therefore recommended PAs to be expanded to include critical habitats and corridors or else be declared community or conservation reserves. Taking note of flawed Environmental Impact Assessments used for diverting elephant habitats for developmental projects, a new approach termed as Elephant Specific Environmental Impact Assessment is suggested for permitting projects in ERs.

Conservation organisations have already identified critical elephant corridors in the country.

Ranking these corridors, a 200-crore budget for habitat securement has been proposed under NECA. The report also calls for rationalisation of ER boundaries based on ecological principles rather than the current ad-hoc boundaries.

Human-elephant conflict

In India, annually over 400 people lose their lives to elephants and at least 500,000 farmers are affected through crop depredation.

Apart from humanitarian reasons, this needs to be addressed as it affects elephants through vengeance killing, loss of elephant habitats due to retaliatory forest fires set by people and other threats to elephant conservation. Importantly, it increases hostility of local people against wildlife conservation in general. Hence the task force has called for an integrated approach to defuse tension and more accountability in the way mitigation measures such as electric fences and elephant proof trenches are managed.

The committee has suggested setting up of local Conflict Management Task Forces involving local elected representatives, media and farmers which would hold a minimum of two taluka level hearings annually to address conflict issues.

Captive elephants

India has a long cultural history of captive elephants. Currently with about 3,500 elephants under ownership of various individuals and organisations, ETF has recommended for moratorium on sale of elephants to temples and phasing out of captive elephants in the future apart from other welfare measures.

Overall, the ETF has shown a strong will to democratise the way elephant conservation needs to go ahead and also how government appointed committees can perform.

Lastly, the task force projects a positive picture that “India can secure the future of elephants and its forest home”. This is unlike several other reports which paint only a gloomy picture. Hope the recommendations of ETF are implemented by the government in true spirit.

On the flip side

* It is important to have representation of MLAs from high conflict areas in the national level committees. Villagers have better access to MLAs than MPs. Most MPs do not depend directly on voters for regaining constituencies; they rely more on local and regional political leaders.

* Though the suggestion of independently evaluating ER management is relevant, it has completely missed the point that independent evaluators can’t be the ones who have retired from the services.

* Bringing paramilitary forces to improve protection might not be ideal. The report itself has highlighted that elephant conservation is as much a social, economic and political
issue, as it is biological. Alien paramilitary forces might only work in terrorist, insurgency infested areas but not under normal circumstances.

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