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We have failed to protect the elephantIndia's heritage animal faces a multiplicity of ever-present dangers and its protection must receive enhanced priority. While reducing accidents is important, the main focus should be on nurturing elephant reserves

One can argue whether the elephant census 2017’s figure of there being 27,312 behemoths across 23 States in India signifies a decline of 3,000 or so against the total population of between 29,391 and 30,711 mentioned in the last census in 2012 or not. The validity of the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change’s claim that the fall is a result of the use of scientific and uniform methods, and that it was only a preliminary report, can be judged only after the final report is out in the next few months as promised. One, however, needs to say now that whatever the final figure, India’s heritage animal faces a multiplicity of ever-present dangers and its protection must receive enhanced priority.

This is in spite of the fact that launched in 1992 to protect the Asian elephant, its habitat and corridors and address the man-elephant conflict, has done good work despite formidable challenges. The most important of these is habitat loss, an important cause of which is ever-growing human encroachment through spreading habitation and agriculture. In search of food, elephants raid cultivated areas and devour and destroy crops. One result of this is human-elephant conflict following elephants going over cultivated areas and people trying to protect crops. According to official figures, a total of 1,465 persons were killed in the years 2013-14 to 2016-17. In turn, people kill 40 to 50 elephants every year, apart from those slain by poachers for the ivory of the tusks.

Habitat loss is also pushing elephants into States like Manipur, Mizoram, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and the Union Territory of Andaman & Nicobar islands where they had not been present earlier. Other factors have also been at work. To cite an example, a major drought in Tamil Nadu in 1983 had caused herds of elephants to cross over to Andhra Pradesh where they had no presence for over two centuries.

In its report submitted on August 31, 2010, the Elephant Task Force, Gajah: Securing the Future for Elephants in India, lists how various elements contribute to habitat loss and dwells on the impact of the latter. It states, “Large developmental and infrastructural projects when not planned or located with adequate care are fragmenting habitat, while other local pressures degrade them.” “The physical presence”, it further states, “of the roads and railway lines in the habitat creates new habitat edges, alters the hydrological dynamics and creates a barrier to the movement of elephants and other animals, leads to habitat fragmentation and loss, apart from death due to train and vehicular hits.”

It adds, “Rail and an increase in road traffic operates in a synergetic way across several landscapes and causes not only an overall loss and isolation of wildlife habitat, but also splits up the landscape in a literal sense. Various developmental activities also come up on either side of the highways and railroads thereby further fragmenting the habitat and increasing biotic pressures.”

According to the Elephant Task Force’s report, train accidents had taken a heavy toll of elephant lives, having killed as many as 150 of these behemoths since 1987 (until the submission of report). 36 per cent of these occurred in Assam, 26, 14 and 10 in the cases of West Bengal, Uttarakhand and Jharkhand respectively. Tamil Nadu accounted for six per cent, Uttar Pradesh and Kerala three each, and Odisha two. Over 100 were killed by trains in the first decade of this century. As many as 20 were killed in 2010 alone. The two large tragedies since then were six deaths in Odisha’s Ganjam district on December 29, 2012, and seven deaths in North Bengal on November 13, 2013.

The Elephant Task Force’s report has recommended several measures to prevent road and rail accidents. Besides those related to site-specific short and long term mitigation, others include the announcement of the principles of forest area, railway track and highway management, the grant of mining licenses and rules governing the drawing and maintenance of power cables through forest areas.

The need for reducing speed is paramount. Animal Equality, an animal rights organisation in Britain, has outlined a number of steps for protecting elephants in letters to the ministers for Railways and Environment, Forest and Climate Change respectively. The recommendations include equipping trains with automatic speed governors which would be activated once these enter forests where the maximum speed should be 20-25 kmph on even tracks and 40-45 kmph on steep tracts. Equally important is the implementation of some of its other suggestions like installing in trains scintillating head lamps with halogen/LED bulbs which would help to illuminate much longer stretches of tracks, fitting them with, water cannons to remove animals refusing to budge from tracks, and installing in them radar sensors to detect animals on tracks, determine the train’s distance from these, and act as instant auto-brakes for preventing collisions.

These comprise a comprehensive approach but their implementation will require time and funds. Meanwhile, where a track or road cuts across several wildlife corridors over a long stretch, the real solution is realignment. For example, it makes little sense to restrict the speed of trains along the 80km Alipurduar-Siliguri stretch, when there is a less vulnerable alignment available through Falakata. Elevated tracks with underpasses for safe, unhindered animal movement are needed where realignment is not possible

The trouble is that implementation has been half-hearted, with the railways being particularly insensitive to protecting elephant corridors cutting across tracks. An example is the accident involving the Chennai-bound Coromandel Express, which hit a herd of elephants in Odisha’s Ganjam district on December 30, 2012. It was, according to Bijoy Kumar Hota, Khallikote Forest Range Officer, travelling at a speed of between 115 to 120 kilometres per hour considering the impact, which scattered the bodies of the elephants hit, here and there around the track, and pieces of carcasses over a distance of half a kilometre! Not only that, it occurred in an area where elephants crossed the railway line regularly. There were as many as 10 sig boards, warning that it was an “elephant crossing zone” between Rambha and Huma stations where the accident occurred.

While reducing accidents is important, the main focus should be on nurturing elephant reserves as the basic management unit for elephant conservation in the country. At present, there are 29 elephant reserves across India, covering over 65,000 sq km. Over 40 per cent of the elephant reserves is not under protected area or Government forest. The problem is managing land use patterns in the area outside these and reducing human-elephant conflict. The future of elephants in India will depend on how we succeed in our efforts.

(The writer is Consultant Editor, The Pioneer, and an author)