It is estimated that there are 22,000 to 25,000 elephants in India, but most of these estimates have been derived using unscientific methods that lack statistical rigour. Hence we have no clue about the real numbers. While the population of elephants is increasing in South and possibly North India, it is decreasing in Central and particularly in Northeast India. Habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation are the major threats to elephants. Others include mining, encroachment and diversion of forests.
Elephants have highly evolved social structures, rigid and structured hierarchies, and fixed home ranges. They cannot shift their home range or move around freely as most of us would like to believe. Whenever elephant habitat is lost or fragmented, a part of the population is destined to die out eventually due to resource crunch. However, this process takes about 30 to 50 years because elephants are highly resilient to poor conditions and persist in the remaining habitat for a very long time.
Also, elephants are increasingly threatened by human intrusion and are often killed in retaliatory action by people. The severe human-elephant conflict, which uses nearly 80 percent of Project Elephant funds, is testimony to our poor conservation of elephant habitats, and a pointer to the thousands of elephants that are living a doomed existence. As nearly 60 percent of the elephant population lives outside the protected areas, they are exposed to our country’s extremely poor forest management policy where mining and other destructive practices are allowed under the guise of compensatory afforestation, which politicians and managers wrongly believe solves the problem. How do elephants whose habitat in one area has been destroyed benefit from the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management And Planning Authority (CAMPA) fund lying in the government treasury or for that matter from seedlings planted in some other area and even if planted in the same area, how do these elephants manage for a decade or two till the trees actually grow to resemble a forest (if at all)? Elephants are the only species that come knocking on our door to tell us through conflict that our forest management is very poor and that we are destroying our last watersheds and threatening our own existence. Poaching, illnesses and local overabundance (only in a few areas) are other threats to elephant’s survival in India.
Ajay Desai is a member of Project Elephant Steering Committee