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At last, a jumbo success

Anand Sankar  |  New Delhi 

Elephant conservation is paying off, and even a solution to increasing man-elephant conflicts is on the horizon.

It is a lonely and forlorn trudge for Bhola, Gangaram, Gulabu and their comrades —Delhi’s captive elephants — as they daily haul themselves from under the ITO Bridge at dawn, on the banks of the Yamuna cesspool.

They plod through a city that does not bat an eyelid for them, to carry a groom at his wedding, or offer joyrides to tourists at a star hotel, all for Rs 2,000. Their day begins before the bedlam of the city’s roads and ends well after it, thanks to the traffic police.

And the mahouts are by law supposed to carry hazard blinkers, even though no law on any indicators has ever been enforced with zeal for motorised vehicles.

About 200 km to the north are the deciduous forests of the Rajaji National Park in Uttarakhand. It is the westernmost wild elephant habitat in Asia and soon a six-lane highway could cut a swathe through it.

But the movement of elephants does figure on the plan and a solution is being studied. Considerable scientific thought is being devoted to establish whether the pachyderms might prefer an overpass over the highway to an underpass below it.

These two stories sum up the story of the Asian elephant in India today. They need to be understood in the context that the numbers of the animal are on a steady rise —in the wild and in captivity. We are going to see and hear more about them, but that’s the only bit of good news.

For the worst, visit the mish-mash of villages and jungles in northern West Bengal, where entire populations are terrorised by the sight of an elephant, and when the tables turn, similar retribution is exacted. It is the eye of a storm.

The elephant needs no introduction in the subcontinent. From being revered as a deity by a majority of the population, it might even leave a footprint in the next general elections to match its size.

But for the flesh and blood species, there is a hardening battle of emotion versus reality. Its population, decimated to a low of 15,627 in 1985, had count in 2002 grown to 26,413, thanks to conservation efforts spearheaded by

In 2000, the domesticated counterparts stood at about 3,700. But both are estimated to head higher this year, when the latest census results are compiled. It costs the central government Rs 20 crore annually to protect the elephant.

But this conservation success story has been brutally tempered by the toll in the battle between man and beast, which has been steadily rising both in the wild and in captivity. Take the recent gruesome attempt to burn a wild elephant alive in Orissa, or the images of a mahout in Kerala being torn to death shown live on TV.

“Human-elephant conflict is a complex issue,” says Ajay Desai, scientist and author on the species. “The elephant is the only species that can hit back at humans and sustain it over a long lifespan. Currently we have measures only suited for temporary relief.”

The conflict peaked in 2003-04, the same year the first successful model in managing conflict with elephants emerged. A similar plan will soon be implemented in northern West Bengal.

The Chila-Motichur migration corridor in the Rajaji National Park, intersected by a busy railway line, had been the cause for the deaths of dozens of jumbos in collisions with locomotives. Since 2003, after the implementation of a Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) and International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) action plan, no further casualties have been reported.

“The experts studied the stretch and after considering the rail traffic and elephant movement, we imposed a speed limit of 25 kmph in stretches. Also, there are patrols which watch over the rail line and warn loco drivers. We hope to implement a similar plan on a larger scale in the Buxa Tiger Reserve soon,” says A N Prasad, director,

Another effort that has yielded startling results is the GPS (global positioning system) tracking of elephant herds, which can range over territory measuring 1,000 km in the Jaldapara reserve, again in northern West Bengal. The study was undertaken by Dr Raman Sukumar of the Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.

“We found that elephants have adapted their migration to crop patterns and raid specifically to eat certain seasonal crops. We can give near real-time information to the authorities and thus sometimes alert villages in advance. Soon, with GSM technology, SMS real-time alerts can be possible. The limit is how long the battery lasts on the elephant’s collar,” says the appropriately nicknamed Elephant Sukumar, considered the world’s leading expert on Asian elephants.

Meanwhile, for Delhi’s captive elephants, the NGO WildlifeSOS has been offering veterinary treatment since 2004. The organisation is now almost ready to launch India’s first dedicated elephant hospital in the Yamunanagar district of Haryana. The state-of-the-art facility has been built based on similar projects in Thailand.

“It will be for elephants from the region of Agra and Delhi. It will provide treatment for sustained periods. There will be space for treatment and 400 acres of natural forage in forest land. There will be a training facility to recondition elephants and train mahouts,” says Kartick Satyanarayan of WildlifeSOS.

A unique aspect of the treatment offered will be a jumbo pedicure, as captive elephants are said to often suffer immense pain from objects embedded in the soles of their feet.

A similar effort was undertaken by Nibha Namboodiri, a zoologist and mahout in Kerala, the state which has the highest number of captive elephants in the country, about 1,000. The state has had some quite gruesome incidents lately where domesticated elephants have run amok and caused multiple casualties. The Elephant Care Centre started with a solitary elephant a few years back and Namboodiri had to overcome quite a few sceptics.

“The response was not very warm — initially because of the gender bias, and later because publicity about suffering elephants did not please the owners. They wanted it kept quiet. I am in need of more funds now. Elephants in Kerala are covered by a set of regulations drafted by the government. But the problem is monitoring and enforcement. Working with the owners is a complex issue as most don’t understand compassion,” she says.

Project Elephant, on its part, says its hands are tied on enforcing good living conditions for captive elephants as it is a “state subject”. It is instead building rehabilitation camps in Haryana, Kerala, Orissa, Karnataka and Assam or Tripura.

Incidentally, it was Tamil Nadu which has set the model for rehabilitation camps by conducting an annual camp at Teppakad in Mudumalai National Park in the Nilgiris.

Urban India has not been spared conflicts with wild elephants either. Famous examples are pachyderms raiding areas close to Bangalore’s IT corridor in Karnataka and the average annual toll is the loss of eight humans.

In Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, ashrams built for people seeking spiritual peace have contributed to disrupting elephant corridors. From 1994 to 2004, 23 people have been killed in conflict with elephants around the city.

“We are concentrating on solar fencing. We want a regulation that ensures that any firm contracted by the forest department to install a fence, maintains it for five years. We want a crack down on ashrams that supposedly bring peace to humans and play havoc with elephants,” says Kalidasan, who works with the NGO Osai in Coimbatore.

There is concern that poaching might make a comeback with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) recently allowing the Chinese to import ivory. says it has sent a warning circular to all elephant reserves and is stepping up patrols.

“With China being a neighbouring country, it gets most of the illegal ivory. There is a definite temptation to poach from India,” says Prasad. Asian ivory is prized for its quality and is called Togawa by the Japanese. Efforts are on to identify African and Asian ivory genetically to make differentiating between them simpler.

Both scientists Desai and Dr Sukumar say efforts must be increased to protect migratory corridors as an increasing elephant population will precipitate more conflict.

Desai insists such conflict can only be minimised and that “building walls” is not the answer. He is especially critical of “eco-tourism projects” that impinge on such corridors, while Sukumar offers a novel solution.

“In the context of climate change, companies will need to go in for afforestation to offset their carbon emissions. This can be diverted to buy land and bridge corridors. This way we can also adapt to migration changes in animals due to climate change,” he says.

WTI is also planning a similar initiative. “We want to purchase land, in effect acquire corridors. We then hand it over to the government with the express guarantee that it gets an indefinite protected area status,” says Ashok Kumar, vice chairman, WTI.

Finally, the next time you visit Jaipur, make sure you schedule a visit to Amber. The former capital will, from next month, host India’s first showcase elephant village.

Elephants in the wild: 15,627 in 1985; 26,413 in 2002. Expected to cross 28,000 in the 2008 census. Slight drop in numbers expected in the North-east reserves.
Captive elephants: Upto 3,667 in 2000. Kerala has the highest number: 1,000. Up to five rehabilitation centres being constructed.
Budgetary allocation for in the current fiscal year: Rs 20 crore. Distributed to all state reserves in amounts ranging from Rs 0.5 crore to Rs 2 crore.
Total number of critical migratory corridors: 17, covering between 1,600  to 2,000 sq km in total. 
Maximum elephant habitat countrywide is 119,550 sq km with 24,580 sq km in protected areas
(Source: Project Elephant)
(It is an indicator of poaching and conflict deaths as males are more vulnerable)
Periyar 1:60-70
Nagarhole 1:6
Bandipur and Nilgiris 1:25-30
Corbett 1:3-4
North Bengal 1:3
(Male:Female; only males over 15 years accounted for)
(Source: Dr Raman Sukumar)

An initiative of Rajasthan’s tourism department, it will house over 100 elephants on land allocated by the Amber Development and Monitoring Authority (ADMA). Mahouts and their families too will get quality accommodation and there will be a waterbody for the animals. Veterinary facilities will be provided by an NGO, Help In Suffering (HIS).

“The project is centrally sponsored and Rs 5 crore has already been sanctioned for phase one, and the project report is being readied for the next phase. This facility will attract tourists and there will be supplementary income for elephant owners,” Urmila Rajoria, additional director in the state’s tourism department says.

Unlike Bhola & Co in Delhi, at least the elephants there won’t be at the mercy of the traffic police.

First Published: Sat, July 26 2008. 00:00 IST