Pregnant elephant's death in Kerala symptomatic of wider malaise of escalating man-animal conflict in India

Elephant specialists and wildlife conservationists have since observed that the Kerala elephant is the latest victim of a steadily escalating, years-long man-animal conflict. The solution lay not in online petitions but in something almost unattainable: a proper, well-planned nationwide land use policy which took into serious consideration the needs of wild animals and forest dwellers.

Gita Aravamudan June 08, 2020 11:18:41 IST
Pregnant elephant's death in Kerala symptomatic of wider malaise of escalating man-animal conflict in India

The news last week of a pregnant elephant’s death in Kerala, reportedly due to firecrackers stuffed inside a fruit she had eaten, triggered widespread shock and anger. Social media posts mourned her and demanded stringent anti-animal cruelty laws even as the details surrounding her death were morphed by politicians who communalised the incident. The irony is that had she been the wild boar for whom the trap was probably intended, her death might have gone unnoticed — a sign of all that is wrong with our society and the way humans treat animals.

Elephant specialists and wildlife conservationists have since observed that the Kerala elephant is the latest victim of a steadily escalating, years-long man-animal conflict. The solution lay not in online petitions but in something almost unattainable: a proper, well-planned nationwide land use policy which took into serious consideration the needs of wild animals and forest dwellers.

For large vegetarian animals that need large tracts of land to roam on and feed off, conservation zones serve no purpose. To hungry elephants with mammoth appetites, the farms on the fringes of the forest prove irresistible. So they wander in and eat their fill — as do wild boar, deer and other animals in search of food. For farmers, the wild boar is more of a nuisance and it is believed that the cracker-trap was actually meant for this animal, and not the elephant.

Sixty percent of Asia’s elephants (and 50 percent of the world’s) live in India, across 18 states. At last count, there were close to 27,000 wild elephants — including those found in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands — and around 2,500 in captivity. The Southern belt of Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, with their interconnected forests, provides a wider range for elephants to roam, and is perhaps why they’re found here in the largest numbers.

Although the elephant population has actually been growing marginally, there is concern over the falling sex ratio as mature bull elephants continue to be hunted for their tusks. The bigger challenge, however, comes from the conflict between these animals and the farmers who cultivate the land in their path. Elephants can cover miles together in a day and consume large amounts of vegetation.  As more and more humans occupy the land on which the pachyderms once roamed, depleting the forests of their bounty, and blocking access to or polluting the pristine rivers which were the elephants’ bathing places, these giants have been squeezed into dwindling tracts of land that are often further sliced by railway tracks, roads, farmlands and other habitation.

Pregnant elephants death in Kerala symptomatic of wider malaise of escalating mananimal conflict in India

Fifty percent of the world’s elephant population is found in India, across 18 states. REUTERS/File Photo

Between 1987 and 2018, 249 elephants were killed on railway lines passing through elephant habitats. Forty-nine from among these were killed in just three years — 2015 to 2018. Wildlife experts say this is due to bad planning on the part of the Railways since these lines cross corridors the elephants have been using for generations. Families of elephants taking their customary route get mowed down by speeding trains or are trapped between the train and an embankment over which they cannot climb. Some states have tried to prevent these deaths by tracking elephant movement through drones and sensors and warning the Railways when elephants cross. But the elephant deaths continue because of the initial thoughtless planning.

Nearly 50 elephants also die every year due to electrocution. Karnataka, which has the largest elephant population in the country, recorded the maximum number of electrocution deaths 2009 and 2017.  This was followed by Assam and West Bengal. Kerala, which also has about 5,700 elephants, recorded 17 deaths due to electrocution. Electric fences and live electric wires are used by farmers living on the edge of forests.  While the fences deliver a current, they are not fatal to the animals who encounter them. Live electric wires are.

In India, elephants have been domesticated from times immemorial. The late Bengali writer and elephant expert DK Lahiri-Choudhury traced their domestication in India to as early as 6000 BC. Vedic literature that also dates back to this period has many references to domesticated elephants.  In fact there are a number of treatises written during that time dealing with the management and treatment of elephants.

In the early years, elephants played a very important role in warfare.  Therefore royal households in particular held a large number of trained captive elephants. Emperor Chandragupta Maurya who lived in the 3rd century BC is said to have had 5,000 elephants. According to Lahiri-Choudhury, Emperor Jahangir who lived in the 17th century AD had 1,13,000 elephants in captivity: 12, 000 in active army service; 1,000 to supply fodder to these animals; and the other 1,00,000 to carry courtiers, officials, attendants and baggage.

Owning elephants became a status symbol.  Apart from royalty, rich households also owned elephants — somewhat akin to the gentry in the West owning horses. Many of them presented elephants to temples. In South India especially, elephants have always been central to temple rituals. Kerala’s temples — like Guruvayoor — have several captive elephants, and elaborately bedecked elephants play a pivotal role during the Thrissur Pooram. Even some churches use elephants during festivals.

Over recent years there has been a much-needed focus on the treatment of elephants in captivity. Right from the shackling of elephants and their diet, their treatment at the hands of inexperienced or drunken mahouts, the torture they undergo when carrying the huge and heavy paraphernalia of festivals and parades are among the issues that have been flagged. There is also growing concern over the commercial exploitation of elephants by the tourism industry.

A task force named Gajah: Securing the Future of Elephants in India, set up in 2010, recommended that the animal be given a special status in India. The elephant was therefore declared a “National Heritage Animal”. “An India without elephants is unacceptable. But an India with elephants requires sustainable approaches that work on the ground,” the task force noted.

That was 10 years ago. Whether or not anything has really now changed on the ground is the question.

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