On the night of 22 September, seven elephants were mowed down by a speeding goods train in northern West Bengal.
The timing couldn’t have been more ironic. The North-East Frontier Railway, under which the track falls, had scheduled a meeting for 26 September to discuss ways of reducing animal hits. Just a few weeks prior to the accident, the Elephant Task Force set up by the Union ministry of environment and forests in February had given its report, recommending detailed and overarching changes in India’s elephant conservation effort. The accident has lent a much needed sense of urgency to what elephant conservationists have been saying for sometime now—that our conservation efforts have been slow, piecemeal and far too limited.
Part of the reason for the indifference lies in the numbers. The 2007 elephant census puts the total number of wild elephants in India at over 27,000. The figures and census methodologies are disputed but most conservationists agree that the number is well over 20,000. So the elephant is by no means endangered. But that is not the same as saying that the elephant is not in danger.
The numbers mask a skewed sex ratio. Most estimates put the number of males at 1,000-1,200, the bulk of them having fallen prey to poachers in the late 1990s when poaching was at its worst. Elephant habitats and movement corridors have been shrinking rapidly, hemmed in by roads, mining and development projects. Designed with a little more care and attention, these projects could have coexisted with the elephant.
That, however, hasn’t happened, and as a result human-elephant conflict has been on the rise. Every year an average of 400 people are killed by elephants and nearly 100 elephants are killed in retaliation. Elephants annually damage around 1 million hectares of land, affecting nearly 500,000 families.
That the elephant population remains as large as it is is only because of the tolerance of communities that live around elephant areas. However, if things continue the way they are, it’s only a matter of time before they run out of patience.
Any further delays in implementing conservation measures carry the risk of irreparable damage to elephant numbers and their complex behavioural and social structures.
The good news though is that conservationists and activists who’ve been crying themselves hoarse all this while are finally beginning to be heard. These are people who’ve worked tirelessly for the elephant, but have been relegated to the background while tiger conservation and conservationists have taken centre stage. They’ve tracked the movement of elephant herds, worked with villagers in minimizing damage to their crops, and studied the effects of train accidents on the behaviour of elephants. And there are quite a lot of them.
We’ve picked a few. Each of them relates differently to the elephant. Their work is not without controversy or disagreement, but they share a passionate desire to protect and preserve these magnificent creatures.
Dhriti Kanta Lahiri Choudhury
AWARD-WINNING AUTHOR AND PROFESSOR
Aday after a train killed seven elephants in north Bengal, Dhriti Kanta Lahiri Choudhury is unfazed. One doesn’t quite expect such cold practicality from the author of six endearing and awarded books in English and Bengali on the animal, one of which, ‘A Trunk Full of Tales’, says the author spent “70 years with the Indian elephant”.
“A few elephants killed isn’t so alarming,” says the 79-year-old. He backs up his statement with facts—since 1976, when Lahiri participated in a census and around 14,000 elephants were counted, the number had increased to 27,000-30,000 by 2006. “Elephants are nowhere close to being on the endangered list yet. Nevertheless, I haven’t found the Environment (Protection) Act raising the issue of rail lines cutting through forests.”
In his words, the recent subject of elephant deaths is overshadowed by a long-continuing sequence of loss. Elephants have suffered not just because of shrinking habitats—with humans, livestock and locomotives taking over areas where jumbos foraged for food—their plight has been compounded by their gradual slide in public consciousness.
Elephants, Lahiri observes in an international compendium of essays published by Johns Hopkins University Press, were mentioned in ancient Indian texts such as the ‘Rig Veda’ and ‘Atharva Veda’ as fit for domesticity; in Kautilya’s ‘Arthashastra’, the elephant was eulogized for its use in the battlefield.
“Even the British used them during the Third Anglo-Burmese War in 1885, when around 450 elephants were transported from India via Chittagong. They were also used for logging and hunting and to survey forests,” says Lahiri, who has a doctorate from the University of Leeds and was a professor at Rabindra Bharati University in Kolkata. In keeping with the animal’s importance, the Elephant Preservation Act, 1879, closely followed the Indian Forest Act, 1878.
Machines have replaced the slow-moving creatures in most spheres. “With so many elephants in the wild, population control is difficult. I had earlier suggested that forest officials use elephants instead of jeeps to survey forests. If two elephants are domesticated for use in each forest range office in elephant habitats, it will be a huge figure,” says Lahiri, who became a member of the IUCN specialist group on elephants in 1977 and of the project elephant advisory committee of the government of India in 2004. “Using elephants for forest surveys can also minimize timber smuggling, for the animals venture deeper than jeeps.”
Born into a ‘zamindar’ family in Mymensingh, now in Bangladesh, Lahiri grew up in a household that owned well over 15 elephants—a world where the Sharmilas and Chandrachurs, as the elephants were called, participated in estate surveys and hunting expeditions. With the family shifting to Kolkata around Partition, Lahiri has not been unfamiliar with the sense of loss now facing the Indian elephant population.
Jacob V Cheeran
VET AND C0-FOUNDER OF THE ELEPHANT WELFARE ASSOCIATION
Jacob V. Cheeran, 70, a retired professor of veterinary medicine from Trichur, Kerala, has been treating elephants for four decades. The co-founder of the Trichur-based Elephant Welfare Association has treated hundreds of domesticated and some wild elephants in Kerala and beyond. One area he focuses on is nutrition. It’s an area, he says, that needs urgent attention.
“In the West, and in the prominent wildlife reserves in Africa, you often find animals are overfed and obese—but they are fed things keeping their nutrition in mind. It’s the opposite here. We starve our animals, or don’t feed them the right things. Also, as part of veterinary science one is taught about the nutritional aspects of animals in colleges in the West. It’s not so here, apart from one or two institutions,” he complains. This means an elephant population that is prone to disease and a wildlife reserve force unable to understand the dietary characteristics of wild elephants.
Healing touch: (left) A mahout gives an elephant a wash in Trichur, Kerala; and Dr Cheeran. Vinod Karimatt/Mint
“One of the basic health problems is parasitism. If we can control that, we can ensure the elephant a good life,” says Dr Cheeran. As part of the Elephant Welfare Association, Dr Cheeran conducts deworming exercises routinely for captive elephants in Kerala. During the course of his work he discovered elephants weren’t getting the right amount of minerals, salts and calcium. So he conducted nutritional experiments on the domesticated elephants to begin with and then on wild ones. His team went into the forests with a half-open box filled with a mix of jaggery and minerals such as calcium, lime and a little bit of urea. Sometimes they replaced the jaggery with mangoes. “The elephants walloped the box’s contents and the box also!” he says.
At the training sessions he conducts in the Vazhachal forest range on the Tamil Nadu-Kerala border, locals and range officers get the lowdown on the medical side of dealing with an elephant on the rampage. They are taught to use tranquillizer shots with xylazine—the trick is to ensure the animal doesn’t fall down. The animal may wobble but must stay standing. If it falls, it will be impossible to lift it. “It needs to be standing so that the team can do a quick check-up,” Dr Cheeran explains.
He even set up the animal health division of Cheerans Labs Pvt. Ltd, a group of companies that otherwise makes non-ferrous alloys. The jumbo doctor is always on call for his jumbo patients.
THE IDEAS MAN
SOCIAL SCIENTIST AND CHAIRMAN OF THE ELEPHANT TASK FORCE
Big animals require big solutions, or so Mahesh Rangarajan, social scientist and wildlife historian, seems to think. The big solution he proposed in ‘Gajah: Securing the Future for Elephants in India’, the recently released report of the Elephant Task Force, is a paradigm shift in how we perceive and deal with our elephant population.
So far, maintains Rangarajan, India’s approach to elephants (and to most other creatures) has been ad hoc and often reactive. This worked for a while, but now as elephant habitats and movement corridors shrink, falling prey to expanding mining in central India, rapidly growing infrastructure (roads, canals, among other things) in the south, industrialization in the north and development projects in the North-East, human-elephant conflict is increasing alarmingly.
Thinking big: Rangarajan’s proposals mark a paradigm shift from the piecemeal conservation efforts at present. Ankit Agrawal/Mint
“It’s time we moved beyond our ‘fencing the forest’ approach to conservation,” he says animatedly. “If we’re to save an animal like the elephant which is spread out across different parts of the country and moves over vast tracts of land, we need adaptive management that involves all the stakeholders.”
As he travelled around the country, interacting with researchers and activists and holding public hearings, Rangarajan realized that this would involve an incredible amount of cooperation between village-level institutions such as the gram panchayat, local MLAs and wings of the government such as the forest, revenue, irrigation and public works departments.
What he proposed was the creation of elephant landscapes, which would include elephant reserves (26 already exist) and the corridors connecting them. Of the 10 that the report mentions, Rangarajan thinks a start should be made with the Kaziranga-Karbi Anglong-Intaki, Kameng-Sonitpur, North-Western (primarily in the Terai region of Uttar Pradesh), East Central and Brahmagiri-Nilgiri-Eastern Ghats landscapes.
The bulk of the areas in these landscapes would of necessity lie outside the current protection framework of national parks, wildlife sanctuaries and reserved forests. But all development here would have to take elephants into account.
Mitigating conflict would require a careful study of elephant behaviour and movement, local infrastructure such as roads, canals and factories, and cropping patterns.
Most important, however, would be helping local communities erect elephant-proof fences, increasing compensation for the grain loss they suffer because of elephant depredation, and establishing a system of “local hearings” to facilitate interactions between villagers, park authorities and government officials.
In his excitement Rangarajan rattles off the minutiae of his plans, the amount of compensation to be paid, how information should be shared with villagers, and the modalities of inter-state cooperation.
The apex agency proposed for implementing this complex system is a National Elephant Conservation Authority, on the lines of the National Tiger Conservation Authority.
Rangarajan doesn’t stop there. The elephant, he says, should be declared India’s National Heritage Animal. It needs a makeover, a “Haathi Mere Saathi” campaign that would change perceptions and bring “‘gaja’ and ‘praja’ closer”.
For Indian conservation all these suggestions are radical and require a re-orientation of current efforts. Have any of them been tried on a smaller scale anywhere? “No,” he says. Aren’t his plans too ambitious? “To make even a small impact we need to think big.”
When we speak, Parbati Barua had just returned after attending to a captive elephant that was playing truant and risked being deemed rogue and put to death.
From her temporary base close to the Darrang-Sonitpur district border in Assam, she sounds upbeat. “I could calm it and the animal is under observation. Killing elephants is the easiest and saddest option,” she says.
Lady courage: Barua, who has been both lauded for her efforts and criticized for her methods, takes it all in her stride. Courtesy Eclectic Magazine
As India’s best-known and reportedly first lady catcher and trainer of elephants, Barua has trained around 400 elephants across India. Her expertise in the traditional method of ‘Mela shikar’, where wild elephants are captured by lassoing them from atop a trained one, has been supplemented by awareness campaigns, conservation efforts and mahout training—all aimed at the “well-being of elephants”. Her vision is simple: “Elephants indicate forest health and if they perish, humans will follow.”
In Assam, a state where around 5,000 elephants roam and where, according to one report, around 600 humans and 250-odd elephants died in man-elephant conflicts between 1990-2003, Barua is bracing for the ensuing cultivation season when animal raids might add to the toll on both sides. Not far from her current temporary base in Sonitpur district, 30 elephants were found poisoned to death in 2001.
“Humans are the problem. I don’t care for scientific study or sitting at computers. I believe in fieldwork and consider forest depletion by humans to be the biggest cause of conflict,” says the 57-year-old. During her awareness programmes, she gives the example of Sindh in Pakistan where elephants reportedly roamed before the forests disappeared. “With rail tracks and roads cutting through elephant habitats, the situation now is akin to having a thoroughfare through your drawing room.”
Over the years, Barua’s work has seen her as the subject of an award-winning book, ‘Queen of the Elephants’, by Mark Shand and a BBC documentary with the same name. While this made her internationally known, it was followed closely by infamy when questions were raised by people such as wildlife documentary film-maker Mike Pandey and politician-green activist Maneka Gandhi on her methods and ethics.
In 2003, Pandey shot 3-hour footage of a young elephant in Barua’s charge apparently being tortured in Chhattisgarh, where she had been invited by the government to rein in a rogue elephant. The Union environment and forests ministry gave her a clean chit. “As a woman in India if you get a little publicity, you draw detractors,” she contends.
A member of Assam’s erstwhile Gauripur royal family, Barua is a niece of Pramathesh Barua, who acted in the Bengali film ‘Devdas’ (1935) and directed its original Hindi version. Her elder sister, the late Pratima Barua, was a renowned folk music exponent known for her singing of Mahut Bondhu, a number that explores the human-elephant relationship, while her father, Prakitish Barua, was a nationally recognized elephant expert.
These days, her parental property is home to three elephants. “I was told that I first touched an elephant as a month-old child. Since then, elephants have been part of my family. They have become part of me.” It’s a message Barua reserves for the world.
Sandeep Kumar Tiwari and Anil Kumar Singh
WILDLIFE TRUST OF INDIA
They couldn’t look more different. Sandeep Kumar Tiwari has the clean, manicured look of a white-collar worker, while Anil Kumar Singh, in his camouflage pants and boots, has the rough-hewn air of someone who’s just emerged from the forest. But once these researchers-turned-activists start talking about elephants they mirror each other, complementing each other’s stories and laughing at shared memories.
It started with a project in Orissa nearly a decade ago. The landscape of the Mahanadi had been divided into a jigsaw by irrigation canals that spread in thin veins across the land. The Rengali canal had cut right through areas that were traditional elephant migration routes between grasslands. In frustration, the elephants had starting attacking villages and crops.
Sanctuary: (above) Tiwari with a calf rescued from a village near the Chandaka Wildlife Sanctuary in Orissa; and Tiwari and Singh (left) at their office in Delhi. Ankit Agrawal/Mint
That’s when a team from the Delhi-based Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) was called in to help. “Similar patterns had started appearing in other parts of the country,” says Tiwari. It was too late to do much about the Rengali canal, apart from building a few bridges and ramps, but it was a warning “that the only way to prevent the conflicts from escalating was to secure these vital corridors”.
It sounds straightforward on paper, but it was complicated on the ground. Local communities which owned the fertile agricultural land had no reason to believe that surrendering land to elephants would in the long term reduce damage to their crops.
Land acquisition was never really an option, Tiwari says, since it alienated the villagers. Instead they would require convincing and cajoling.
So the team decided to build schools and dispensaries. They created economic opportunities by training villagers to start fisheries, or in the case of the Garo Hills of Meghalaya, piggeries. In states such as Arunachal Pradesh, they experimented with the “Grain for Grain” programme, which promised to return every bit of grain the villagers lost to elephants.
The results did not take long in showing. In most cases, villagers set aside land which was part of elephant corridors; and in others, WTI, using funds from international donors, purchased the land from the villagers (and subsequently handed it over to the forest department).
They’ve managed, says Tiwari proudly, to secure eight corridors around the country, from the Kollegal corridor in Karnataka to corridors in the Garo Hills. These corridors range in length from 700m to 3,000m.
Equally significantly, in a 2005 publication titled ‘Right of Passage’, the team surveyed and listed 88 important elephant corridors that need to be conserved.
While Tiwari was busy working on securing the corridors, Singh had embarked on a different project. In 2001, 20 elephants had been killed in separate incidents while crossing a busy railway track that ran through the Rajaji National Park in Uttarakhand. The fault, according to Singh, lay in the way the track was laid, with sharp turns and steep embankments that blocked the line of sight of locomotive drivers. The route of the track, separating elephant grasslands on one side from perennial water sources on the other, was also faulty. With that started the National Train Hit Mitigation Programme.
What Singh needed to do was to get the railways to realign the track in some parts and trim the embankments. Locomotive drivers needed to be familiarized with the terrain and sensitized about elephants. Information about herd movements would need to be shared between the forest guards, railway officials and drivers. Sounds simple, but in practice it required quick coordination between the railways and the forest department, both big bureaucratic set-ups. Slowing a train is a difficult procedure since it has ramifications across the network. Once a herd of elephants was sighted by a forest guard, a message would make its way to the divisional forest office and the closest railway station, from where it would go to the divisional railway office, and then to all trains passing on the route.
Fine-tuning the system and getting forest guards to cooperate with locomotive drivers has taken many years, but the outcome has been so successful that there hasn’t been a single elephant death in Rajaji since the project started in 2001. Every night a six-man team, with two people each from the forest department, railways and WTI, patrols the tracks, looking for animal movements. Different railway boards have since sought WTI’s help in reducing train hits. “It’s when Southern Railway approached us, instead of it being the other way around, that we knew we’d made an impact,” says Singh, smiling.
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