India's Elephant Population: Fast-tracking their extinction?

Man-animal conflicts are seriously endangering India’s elephant population

India's Elephant Population: Fast-tracking their extinction?

Rashme Sehgal

India’s wild elephant population is dwindling—fast. Although we take pride in laying claim to 50 per cent of the world’s population of Asian elephants, recent surveys conducted by the Union ministry of environment and forest and climate change reveal these gentle giants could well be on the road to extinction.

Electrocution has emerged as a major cause of death, overtaking poaching as the No. 1 elephant killer. In the first two weeks of March this year, Tamil Nadu lost three female elephants, electrocuted by an illegal electric fence put up by farmers in Dharmapuri district. It could have been even more tragic. If the forest department hadn’t sent an alert to the electricity department, the wires might not have been disconnected in time to save the two nine-month-old calves who were desperately trying to reach their dead mothers.

Eleven days later, in the same district, a male elephant came in contact with a live wire and died on the spot. The farmer was arrested. But the damage had been done.

All across India, more and more villagers are taking the law into their hands and putting up illegal electrical fencing to stop elephants from straying into their fields. A single electric wire is strung all along the periphery of a farm and connected to an overhead power line. With a current of 220 volts coursing through, even the biggest elephant has little chance of survival if it comes in contact with these deadly live wires that seem to have become the norm across several states with elephant corridors. The MoEF revealed that 531 elephants died between 2014 and 2022. This comprises two per cent of the total population of elephants in the country (27,300).

While the farmer in Tamil Nadu told the police his reason for stringing up the wires was to kill the wild boars destroying his crops, in Uttarakhand, farmers have no qualms in confessing that they are doing it to kill elephants.

“The problem is that all the key elephant corridors that provide sustenance to the 2,000 or so jumbos living in Uttarakhand have been encroached upon, with the local population using this forest land to construct houses and for agricultural purposes. Once their corridors get fragmented, where will these elephants go in search of food and water?” says Dehradun-based environmentalist, Reenu Paul.

In the wake of an elephant death due to electrocution, no detailed enquiry is undertaken by the forest department in Uttarakhand. On 15 December 2022, an elephant died when it came in contact with a high-tension wire in the Khanpur forest range of Haridwar district. On 9 January 2023, a thirty-year-old elephant was electrocuted in Rudrapur district. The forest department claimed the death occurred due to contact with a low-lying high-tension wire, but no attempt was made to discover just how this wire had snapped.

“Putting up electric wiring is completely illegal. The villager on whose land the elephant was electrocuted must be questioned by the police. But even in the cases where they do get arrested, they are released on bail within a couple of days, so what disincentive do they have to not electrocute the wild animals?” asks Rajeev Mehta, honorary warden (retd.) of the Rajaji Tiger Reserve.

The story is depressingly similar across states. More than half the elephant deaths that occur in Odisha, Assam and Karnataka are caused by electrocution. According to figures issued by Odisha’s state wildlife headquarters, of the 61 elephants electrocuted, poachers were guilty for more than half, with the remaining deaths being caused wilfully by villagers, or through negligence on the part of electricity department staff.

In Assam, electrocution, train hits and poisoning have been identified as the main causes of elephant deaths. Of the 212 deaths reported since 2017, 52 were due to electrocution, 26 due to train hits, while another 18 due to poisoning by villagers. NGOs suspect that while the remaining 107 deaths have been listed as caused by ‘unknown reasons’, these are actually deaths caused by electrocution and poisoning.

The reason is clear—human-animal conflict is on the rise in Assam, as it is in other states. Karnataka, which has one of the largest populations of elephants (6,000), saw seven deaths due to electrocution during the last year. More and more villagers are resorting to electric fencing as a means to eliminate jumbos, as they say this is the only way they can protect their crops.

The law courts continue to be extremely tardy when dealing with such cases. The Karnataka High Court upheld the conviction of two men who had put up illegal electric fencing around their agricultural land a full 14 years after the elephant had died.

Elephant experts blame the forest department staff for this state of affairs as they are not willing to stand up against the political interests that allow unchecked encroachments into forest territory.

“This has ended up accelerating elephant-human conflict. Forests have to be kept clear of human beings because elephants know where to look for food. But if their forests are taken away from them, they will become aggressive and turn to raiding food crops,” said Mehta.

The solution being offered by the forest department to alleviate man-elephant conflict is to install solar fencing as a deterrent to elephant movement. The Uttarakhand government is spending crores of rupees on solar fencing. However, what is shocking is that solar fencing is also being installed around forest chowkis and rest houses in the heart of tiger territory.

Crores of rupees have been spent on installing solar fencing around the rest houses and forest chowkis inside the Corbett Tiger Reserve.

“Prior to the Kumbh Mela held in Haridwar in April 2021, the state government spent Rs 5 crore in putting up solar fencing along the main highways leading up to Haridwar. This has turned out to be a colossal waste of money because the jumbos do not see these solar fencing as being a deterrent and have broken them all,” Mehta added.

Elephants are intelligent creatures and according to scientists, learn to adapt to deterrent measures. In the eastern part of the Manas Tiger Reserve in Assam, local NGOs persuaded the villagers to convert their illegal electric fencing into solar-powered electric fencing. While in Uttarakhand the fences have been dug into the ground, Assam’s forest department is using hanging solar-powered electric fences. One such fence has been installed on the fringe of the Rani Reserve Forest near Guwahati and it has helped prevent elephants from destroying human settlements and paddy fields, claims range officer Manoranjan Barman.

Several environmental scientists point out that elephants suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) like humans, and become depressed and aggressive, showing mood swings when they lose their homes. With the Modi government having handed over large tracts of pristine forest including 170,000 hectare of the Hasdeo Arand forests in Chattisgarh, and allowed Coal India Ltd (CIL) to carry on open cast mining in a large swathe of the Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve in Assam, there is no doubt that the elephant’s natural habitat has severely shrunk.

“We are the last generation that will see elephants in the wild. Elephants do not breed in captivity. It will come as no surprise when two decades from now, elephants will be imported to India, as has been the case with cheetahs. The government will not hesitate to spend thousands of crores on such an enterprise but will not do the needful to allow them to survive today,” a senior forest official said on condition of anonymity.

Can we let this happen? If the elephant in the room is corporate greed and illegal encroachment, can we afford to look the other way?

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