A booming human population and rapid economic development are shrinking the elephants’ habitat in India. Although, elephant was declared India’s national heritage animal in 2011, giving it the same protection as the tiger, rapid industrialisation, mining, railways and expanding human settlement have greatly diminished the habitat of the country’s roughly 25,000 wild elephants.
Four decades after the much trumpeted setting up of Project Tiger, to the big-cat population has continued its disastrous fall from 40,000 a century ago to 1,400 now. The same is going to happen the India’s elephants. While elephants are worshipped by many in India, shrinking habitat has led to increased conflict with people and the deaths of many of the protected animals.
Elephant mortality is highest due to train accidents; there have been 127 deaths due in Assam, West Bengal, Odisha and Uttarakhand. Because of their large size, elephant deaths are bound to be noticed. The deaths of several smaller animals go undetected. There are many instances of tiger, leopard, deer, bears and several other species being killed in train accidents in various parts of the country.
Nearly 500 elephants have died of electrocution, both accidental and intentional. The rural electrification projects under the Rajiv Gandhi Yojana have seen many interior parts of the country electrified. Electricity lines are supported by cement poles that elephants rub against and these poles need protection around them. These lines seldom have circuit breakers and many electricity wires sag and are at heights that elephants come in contact with and die. In many cases revengeful villagers, because of the crop destruction, hang wires from these lines which kill the elephants.
Many elephants are killed by ivory poachers. Unlike African elephants, only male Indian elephants have tusks, which have skewed the gender ratio in some places to one male for every 100 females.
The state of Odisha has become the biggest graveyard for the animal in India. The state has 70 per cent of the elephant population in eastern India. More then 300 have been killed in the last five years. While bauxite, iron and coal mining may have created wealth for the State, it has left elephant habitats depleted. The blasting, light and noise pollution is disturbing elephants, who venture in habitated areas in confusion and cause destruction. Ironically, there hasn’t been a single conviction for poaching elephants in Odisha in the last two years.
The man-elephant conflict is so extreme that 589 people have been killed in the state in the last decade. As the elephants move out of their habitat to human habitations, it leads to eventual conflict between man and animal. Elephants are basically not aggressive animals, but increasing conflict with humans is making them more and more aggressive.
Accountability is zero. In the recent train tragedy in Odisha, the driver of the train which mowed down five elephants was arrested and then let off. The top officials have never been persecuted for the gross negligence that leads to most of the deaths. Of the 88 identified elephant corridors in India, 40 have national highways running through them, 21 have railway tracks, and 18 have both. Building of irrigation canals in elephant habitats also leaves the elephants with no way of crossing the canals and causes fragmentation of elephant habitats.
The government should put electronic tags on all elephants in high-traffic areas so that wildlife and forest personnel can keep track of their movements. Once elephants are electronically tagged, forest personnel will be able to track their movements and keep them away from harm.
India has some 60 per cent of the remaining total of 44,000-56,000 Asian elephants. Laos, once dubbed “the land of a million elephants”, has only 1,000 left. Indians are generally keen on the animal in whose form is manifested in Ganesh. But even that fondness can cause misery, as some 3,500 elephants are kept captive for temple rituals, political rallies, marriage processions and children’s birthday parties.
The Sun Temple of Konark has 4000 elephants engraved on its walls. If nothing is done soon, the elephant will be seen only in the murals of the temple walls in India.