BEST SEEN AT: Corbett National Park, Nagarhole National Park
STATUS: Schedule I/Endangered*
GOOD TO KNOW: The trunk has no bones but has 150,000 muscles
THE ASIATIC ELEPHANT isn’t really endangered, is it? After all, there are over 27,000 of them (according to the 2007 census), an increase of over 1,000 from five years ago. Have we questioned this data the way we did over-inflated tiger numbers? For the moment, leave aside the census, but examine the claim that the populations of Asiatic Elephants is on an upward trend. “Not when habitats are shrinking at unprecedented rates,” points out a senior official from the Ministry of Environment and Forests. “Habitats of both elephants and tigers overlap in most parts of the country. Tiger numbers have declined — essentially due to poaching and habitat loss. The same holds true for elephants, and there is the very serious issue of escalating man-elephant conflict.”
Elephants, he warns, are dying unmourned. But aren’t elephants revered in India? No significant work may begin without invoking Ganesha. It used to be that if a domestic elephant came to a village, people used to rush to pay obeisance, offer flowers, gur, a banana or two.
The horror of the present is framed in an incident shortly after 9/11: a massive elephant was killed by enraged villagers. Scrawled on the carcass was ‘Dhan Chor Bin Laden’ (Paddy Thief Bin Laden). God has morphed into a thief and terrorist. This occurred in the Sonitpur district adjoining Nameri National Park in Assam, one the most severe man-elephant conflict areas. Annually, about 40 people die in tragic encounters with elephants — and the number of elephants killed in revenge is about the same. Statistics from the ‘empire of elephants’ — the Western Ghats — is no better. “In the past 15 months, 31 elephants around protected areas in Karnataka have met a grisly end from high voltage electricity illegally connected to farm fences to stop crop-raiding,” according to wildlife biologist Sanjay Gubbi. In May last year, no less than 30 bullets were pumped into the body of an elephant that had ventured into the fields near Rajaji National Park and killed one person.
The elephant map of India reflects similar conflict everywhere. It also sends a clear message about the animal’s bleak future. Only about five percent of its original habitat remains — a shattered kingdom comprising fragmented pockets of forests.
Elephants are essentially nomadic creatures dictated by ancient instincts leading them to sources of food and water. Only, the forest they knew are now tea gardens and paddy fields, or submerged by dams or devastated by mines. Homeless and starved, the elephant marauds crops, destroys huts and other obstructions and occasionally kills helpless people protecting their homes. In retaliation, people poison, electrocute or ‘blow up’ elephants, by placing crude bombs in elephant delicacies like jackfruits. In Keonjhar, Orissa prime habitat has been ravaged by mines. In the last five years, the elephant population has reportedly crashed from 110 to less than 30. Like tiger deaths, elephant deaths are underreported too.
The other major danger is poaching. Slaughtered for ivory, a tusker has less than 50 percent chance of survival and in parts of Kerala, the sex ratio of male-female is 1:100. India has only about 1,200 tuskers. A belief that females have actively starting choosing makhanas, or tuskless elephants as mates — as an evolutionary strategy — is gaining credence with scientists and is even the subject of a study in the north-east. A new fable for our times.
Prerna Singh Bindra