The elephant is more vulnerable than the tiger

The elephant is more vulnerable than the tiger
As we go all out to propitiate the elephant god, Ganesh, let us also spare a thought for the elephant, the animal that is rapidly losing its habitat to human encroachment. Just 22 per cent of elephant habitat is found within our protected network of national parks and sanctuaries, in contrast to tigers’ domains that take up the lion’s share. Other than this 22 per cent, the remaining elephant range lies outside, in terrains now filled by human population and their activities. The elephant is, therefore, much more vulnerable than the tiger in this context.

The projected 28,000 wild elephants in India are dispersed in approximately three per cent of the country’s geographical expanse, but all these elephants are in regular conflict situations considering the declining free ranges. About 350 people got killed annually over the last five years (2006-10) in conflict with elephants, and 40-50 elephants were killed while crop-raiding.

The elephant situation in eastern India is particularly of concern. The thick forests of South Bengal’s Midnapur district had been populated by elephants since early19th century, but that population diminished with the loss of forest cover and degradation of their natural habitat. However, in the last three decades, the forest department has managed to improve the situation with the help of the local community and various schemes, such as joint forest management where the locals and the forest department are working together towards the development and protection of forest lands. The elephants of adjoining states like Jharkhand and Orissa, who used to frequent these forests before degeneration, have started to come back to this area once again.

The scenario seems like a great environmental success story, but it also has a dark side to it. In the last five years or so, 25 humans have been killed by elephants and five elephants killed by humans in this region. The number of elephant fatalities is possibly much higher than the official figure because many cases have not been reported by the government agencies.

The main reason for such fatalities and such conflicts has been the extensive mining going on in the elephant habitats of Orissa and Jharkhand. Elephants are migratory animals and they often traverse hundreds of kilometres in a particular season. But in the case of Bengal, many elephants are unable to return to the Jharkhand forests because of the increased mining activity on their way back. A report by Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI) has revealed that as much as 5,000 hectares of prime elephant habitat in Jharkhand and Odisha have been taken over for mining during the last decade. To make matters worse, villagers, especially in Odisha, have created barriers to curb elephant movement. As a result, elephants are unable to return to their habitats and get trapped in Bengal where they end up in conflict with the population.

Recently a wildlife activist, Diya Banerjee, compiled all this data and filed an RTI followed by a court petition to question the action of authorities in the state. Senior officials are said to have held a meeting on this issue and come out with an action plan to control the situation. We are hopeful that some kind of positive action will emerge soon, and the elephants will be treated with as much love and respect as the god who shares their head.

(The writer is a conservation biologist at Tiger Watch, Ranthambore)

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