Note: This article has been republished from Down To Earth.
The main focus of United Nations World Wildlife Day on March 3 this year is “the future of elephants is in our hands” with the overall theme being “the future of wildlife is in our hands.” Wildlife Day marks the signature of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
The 17th Conference of Parties (COP17) of the CITES—to be held from 24 September to 5 October 2016 in Johannesburg—will be held on the issue of ivory trade and the debate around National Ivory Action Plans (NIAPs). African nations have been demanding a rollback of the ban on ivory trade to generate revenue to aid in conservation efforts. On the other hand, CITES, that had imposed this ban in 1989 has been focusing on formulating “guidelines to strengthen controls of the trade in ivory and ivory markets.”
In India, while poaching for tusks continues to be a large-scale phenomenon, it is the man-elephant conflict which has been creating a furore. The pachyderm is accorded with the highest degree of protection in Indian laws under the Schedule-1 of the Wildlife Protection Act.
According to Project Elephant, three percent of India’s land total surface is elephant country and only 10 percent of this is affected by conflict. However, wild elephants probably kill far more people than tigers, leopards or lions, says the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC). According to MoEFCC data, 391 people and 39 elephants died in 2014-15 across India as a result. This is an improvement from last year when 413 human casualties and 72 elephant deaths were recorded and from 2012-13 that saw 422 humans casualties and 101 elephants deaths.
However, Rs 34.52 crore was given as compensation because of elephant ravages in 2014-15 as opposed to Rs 30.29 crore in 2013-2014. This indicates that elephants are increasingly foraging for food outside the ‘designated’ forest areas. Factors like habitat loss and shrinkage and degradation of elephant range can be linked to this increase.
India has 27 formally notified elephant reserves extending over about 60,000 square kilometres. There are about 88 elephant corridors, which experts say, are heavily fragmented and only 24 percent of the corridors are under complete forest cover. According to P. Aravindan, a wildlife biologist based in Coimbatore with expertise on elephants, a fragmented corridor is as good as no corridor. “If we take the Western Ghats, for example, it is amongst the most conducive habitats for elephants. The concentration of Asiatic elephants in one place is the highest in the Western Ghats. However, about 70 percent of the area falling under designated elephant corridor is one kilometre or less. It is that fragmented. How does the elephant travel, then? This leads to conflict as the human settlements in these corridors are primarily agrarian and elephants are lured to the food crops,” he explains.
Furthermore, elephants are highly mobile creatures and a herd needs to travel at least 10 to 20 kilometres a day. “If we think elephants can be restricted to an area of about 100 square kilometres, we are taking away their basic behaviour. They need tonnes of vegetation as food every day. If we try and constrict them to smaller areas, they are bound to ravage the area in a matter of days. So, elephants being on the move is healthy not only for them but for entire forest comprising of other species as well,” says S.S. Bist, emeritus scientist at Wildlife Institute of India and former director of Project Elephant.
As per the elephant census held in 2007-08, the estimated population of elephants in India is between 27,669 and 27,719 individuals. In May 2015, a ministry-commissioned panel to study elephant migration had proposed to inject female elephants with a contraceptive vaccine to control their population in the wild.
If a viable solution to the man-elephant conflict is not reached at the earliest, this — coupled with the lucrative ivory trade — will serve as the death-knell for the elephants.