Can jumbos be saved?

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Our policies are shy of even considering the cost of saving 30,000-odd elephants in this resource-starved country

By Jay Mazoomdaar

Cut off Deforestation and encroachment in lower Assam has isolated these elephants of Manas from those in north Bengal
Cut off Deforestation and encroachment in lower Assam has isolated these elephants of Manas from those in north Bengal
Photo: Rathin Barman/ WTI

THE HEALTHIEST forests, wrote Chalukya king Someshvara III in Manasollasa, were the ones where elephants thrived and it was the sovereign’s duty to protect those elephant forests. More than eight centuries later, there is still no bigger test for conservation and governance. But can we really save Elephas maximus, which makes the biggest demand on resources that are getting scarce by the day in an overcrowded India?

Cardus had his reasons for dubbing the scoreboard an ass, but numbers often tell the story. India’s 668 Protected Areas (PAs) extend over 1,61,222 sq km, which is less than 5 percent of its geographic area. Yet, many consider these ideally no-go areas an impediment to growth. India’s 32 elephant reserves (ER) span over 65,000 sq km and less than 30 percent of these ER areas are PAs. Implementing the Elephant Task Force (ETF)’s 2010 recommendation of declaring the entire ER areas ecologically sensitive under the Environment Protection Act will make it difficult to develop or mine an additional 46,000 sq km.

The task force also recommended setting up of 10 elephant landscapes around the 32 ERs, covering 1,10,000 sq km. That would require judicious land use in yet another 45,000 sq km. Given that we gripe about setting aside 1,61,222 sq km as PAs, are we prepared to earmark another 91,000 sq km as no-go or slow-go areas? Chhattisgarh, for instance, sought to declare two ERs to tackle conflict caused by jumbos driven out of Odisha. Five years after the Centre’s nod, the state is yet to notify either Lemru or Badalkhol-Tamorpingla. The 1,500-odd sq km in question has rich coal deposits.

Madhaviah Krishnan, possibly India’s finest naturalist ever, blamed the Constitution drafted by “men with formidable knowledge of legal and political matters but hardly any of the unique biotic richness of India”. Wildlife conservation entered the national agenda in the 1970s and slowly gained currency. Over the past 15 years, allocations jumped from about Rs 800 crore in the 9th Plan to Rs 1,600 crore in the 10th and Rs 2,943 crore in the 11th.

But reasonable funding went to the tiger alone, which is managed almost entirely in protected forests and, as a result, has lost all viable populations outside tiger reserves (TRs). During the past three Plan periods, Project Tiger’s budget rose from Rs 75 crore to Rs 150 crore and then Rs 1,217 crore (including village relocation funds) for managing 38,000 sq km in 41 TRs.

India’s 32 elephant reserves span over 65,000 sq km and less than 30 percent of these are PAs

The ERs cover nearly double that area and yet allocations for Project Elephant in the same Plan periods remained a mere Rs 35 crore,Rs 60 crore and Rs 102 crore, respectively. This, when more than Rs 2 of every Rs 3 budgeted for jumbo conservation is spent on fighting conflict that kills around 400 people and damages up to 1 million hectares of crops every year.

Last year, the plan panel’s working group on wildlife agreed to the ETF’s recommendation of Rs 600 crore for the proposed National Elephant Conservation Authority (NECA) during the 12th Plan period. While the Plan document is yet to be finalised, Project Elephant has been sanctioned just Rs 22.58 crore, against the recommended Rs 120 crore, during 2012-13.

Given the enormity of the challenge, the NECA’s best chance will be to focus on the four critically conflict-ridden sates of Assam, West Bengal, Jharkhand and Odisha. While Assam’s problem is mass encroachment and requires a political solution, the conflict in the east-central landscape is mining. Quarries spread over less than five hectares are not covered under the Mines and Mineral Development Act and numerous clusters of such small units have been ravaging the elephant corridors.

The government’s immediate test lies in stopping these mines and institutional occupancy of land (such as the Indian Oil depot in Uttarakhand’s Gola forest) on corridors; unless we have resigned ourselves to losing all viable elephant populations outside the southern peninsula in a matter of years.

Jay Mazoomdaar is an Independent Journalist. 
[email protected]

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