A recent video showing an elephant on fire after a blazing object falls on it has opened the conversation around the cruelty meted out to elephants and the need to protect the endangered species. The Tamil Nadu Forest Department has arrested two of the three accused persons in this particular case and the district authorities have sealed the rooms of the homestay whose employees allegedly tortured the animal. The cruelty meted out to the jumbo has reopened discussions about ways to conserve and protect elephants.
The elephant enjoys the highest levels of protection in India. It has been listed in Schedule-1 of the Wildlife Protection Act of India, 1972. The significance of a species being listed in Schedule-1 is that any offenders will be awarded the maximum punishment for not complying with the provisions of the Act.
According to this report in Down To Earth, there are only around 27,000 wild elephants left in India. Ten years ago, the number was around 10 lakh, says the report, indicating a decrease of around 98% in the elephant population in 10 years.
Tamil Nadu was home to about 10% of the total number of elephants in the country, fourth highest after Karnataka, Assam and Kerala, as per the Synchronised Elephant Population Estimation programme carried out by the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change in 2017. In Tamil Nadu, Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve had the highest number of elephants (772), followed by the Hosur belt (499), Mudumalai Tiger Reserve (294) and Anamalai Tiger Reserve (237).
However, whatâ€™s worrying wildlife experts, environmentalists, animal rights activists and conservationists is the number of elephants that have died in Tamil Nadu in the last few years. Between 2015 and 2019, 476 elephants have died in the state. Between January 1, 2020 and September 2, 2020, 85 elephants have died across TN, as per data provided by the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, Tamil Nadu Forest Department to an RTI query by Antony Rubin, a Chennai-based animal welfare activist. These deaths include those from natural causes and from man-made causes like electrocution.
The oft-asked questions around this issue include:
- What is causing this rapid decline and deaths among elephants?
- Is it natural for so many elephants to die in such a short period?
- What needs to be done immediately to arrest the decline in the elephant population?
Man-animal conflict remains top concern
Speaking to TNM, M Ananda Kumar from Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF) says that the solution to reducing elephant mortality is not simple. â€śI wish there was an easy solution for this,â€ť he says. According to several elephant conservation experts, one of the major reasons that elephants come out of their habitat and end up getting killed by human beings is man-animal conflict.
â€śThe conflict between wildlife and man should decrease. Thatâ€™s the most important thing,â€ť Ananda Kumar points out. After having submitted his doctoral thesis on human-elephant conflict and the behaviour of Asian elephants in human dominated landscapes in rainforests and plantations, and working in the Anamalai hills for over 10 years, Ananda Kumar says that encroachment in elephant corridors is a major concern.
In fact, in 2020, the Supreme Court had upheld a Madras High Court order against encroachments in the elephant corridor in the Nilgiris. The HCâ€™s order had given the District Collector the power to identify and seal encroachments along the corridor. The case dated back to 2011 and the Nilgiris district administration had identified around 821 illegal structures, including 39 resort complexes (12 without approvals and 27 with residential approvals but operating as commercial establishments) that were along the elephant corridor. In 2018, the apex court ordered that the 27 resorts also be closed. It also appointed ADN Rao as the Amicus Curiae to study the issue and report back to the court. ADN Rao, in his report, concluded that all 821 illegal structures deserve to be sealed and demolished, except houses belonging to people from local tribes. He also recommended that the Supreme Court uphold the HCâ€™s order.
In fact, in 2020, the Chief Wildlife Warden of Tamil Nadu set up a special committee with experts like Shekhar Kumar Niraj of the Advanced Institute of Wildlife Conservation (AIWC) to study the reasons behind the deaths of the pachyderms in Tamil Nadu. The committee was also tasked with analysing human-animal conflict, elephant habitat restoration, socio-economic structure of the villages situated within forest boundaries, etc. The committee is yet to submit its report.
D Boominathan, the Landscape Coordinator of World Wildlife Fund-India (Western Ghats, Nilgiris) and a member of the above mentioned committee, agrees with Ananda Kumar when he says that finding a solution to the man-animal conflict is not easy. â€śWithout addressing the larger aspects like corridor connections and ensuring the free movement of elephants, looking at elephant-man conflict is not going to be easy,â€ť he says.
Holistic infrastructure planning
Pointing out the rapid increase in vehicular traffic in roads cutting through elephant corridors, Boominathan says, â€śIn 2007, the traffic consisted of around 4,500 vehicles per day. But now, itâ€™s more than 8,000 vehicles, and on weekends, this goes up to even 12,000. This continuous vehicular traffic affects the regular movement of elephants. They then tend to explore newer areas and stay on one side of the habitat for a longer time. This leads to increase in the man-animal conflict as well.â€ť
Both Ananda Kumar and Boominathan suggest planning underpasses or flyovers in such areas, which will ensure elephants have free movement through their usual corridors.
Several farmers who cultivate on land bordering reserve forests erect electric fences, which end up electrocuting elephants, leading to their deaths. One of the reasons farmers take up such measures is the delay in appropriate relief reaching them when crop damage happens, as per experts. Experts add that inter-departmental communication and coordination is the utmost requirement to address the farmersâ€™ grievance in time.
The current compensation provided by the state government for crops damaged by wild animals is Rs 25,000 per hectare or actual loss, whichever is less, and Rs 500 per coconut tree, as per this document.
â€śIt requires coordinated communication and action from the various departments in any government â€“ Agriculture, Mining, Forest and Wildlife, etc. Collective effort is needed to do this, itâ€™s not simplistic. The government must come forward to provide relief for crop damage promptly,â€ť Ananda Kumar explains. Boominathan adds that the onus is on the government to simplify the compensation system intended to reach the affected parties.
Noting that human-elephant conflict due to loss and fragmentation of habitat is indeed one of the biggest issues in elephant conservation, Prerna Singh Bindra, a wildlife conservationist and former member of the National Board for Wildlife, says that the conflict is exacerbated when we do things like obstruct their path with fences, or chase and harass them, because then elephants may strike in panic.
â€śThe basic thing to do is see where we can potentially expand protected areas, extend graded protection to key elephant habitats and corridors so that damaging projects like mining, highways or an endless expansion of resorts that block elephant movement, can be regulated. The government needs to have a well-thought-out strategy keeping in view elephant ecology so that suffering for both people and elephants is minimised,â€ť she adds.
Elaborating that elephants are by nature migratory and need large spaces to move around for survival, Prerna explains that it is essential to have strategies where people and elephants share spaces peacefully and safely; and that this must be done in consultation with the people.
Over the years, experts have also flagged the lack of adequate veterinary doctors in the region to attend to elephant injuries on time. The injuries, if not attended on time, usually leads to serious infection in elephants and ultimately their deaths. In an earlier TNM report, an expert had highlighted that the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve (MTR) does not have a dedicated veterinary officer and instead the one in MTR also works in Masinagudi and other areas.
When TNM contacted MTR for this story, a senior official said that MTR got its exclusive veterinary officer in October 2020 and that there is no lack of veterinary officers in the range. â€śWe have our own exclusive veterinary doctor in MTR now. So, I wouldnâ€™t say that we lack qualified veterinarians to take care of animals,â€ť the official said.