With an estimated 26,000 elephants India is home to half the world’s population of Asian elephants (Elephas maximus). These pachyderms are spread over a geographical area of about 110,000 sq km, sixty percent of which have been declared as 32 Elephant Reserves (ER).
A different concept from the conventional Protected Areas (PAs), ERs consist of a mixture of land categories. PAs (30%), Reserved Forests (40%) and private lands (30%) form the land tenure of ERs. Securing this landscape in pursuit of saving a flagship species is a challenging and daunting task, particularly as degrees of protection and land ownership vary within ERs. Combined with it is the ever-expanding economy and crushing human numbers competing for space, some of it with elephants. This is perhaps true for all large vertebrates that have specialised food habits and/or range over wide areas. However, due its ability to inflict human fatalities, the conservation of elephants is a mammoth task compared to other species.
The increased tension due to human-elephant conflict and rampant retaliatory killing of elephants prompted the central Government to set up the Elephant Task Force (ETF) along the lines of the Tiger Task Force that was earlier set up in the wake of the tiger crisis looming over the nation. The focus of the ETF was to bring in long-term, pragmatic solutions for elephant conservation.
Saving a large species like the elephant has become the ultimate test of India’s willingness to conserve wildlife. Recently, the Central Government created the Elephant Task Force (ETF) along the lines of the Tiger Task Force. Interestingly, the task force was headed by a wildlife historian and political analyst, Dr. Mahesh Rangarajan – an indication that issues related to elephant conservation encompass the broader social milieu. Other members of the task force were elephant biologists, conservation and animal welfare activists and a veterinarian.
A democratic process was attempted to create the ETF report. There were country-wide consultations that included a wide array of people – people affected by elephants, elected representatives, officials of forest departments, wildlife biologists, conservation and welfare activists, mahouts, veterinarians, temple committees and elephant owners. This report, called Gajah: Securing the future for elephants in India, was submitted to the government a few months ago. The report advocates transparency in all aspects of elephant conservation, and it is admirable that the report itself was immediately made accessible to the public on the website of the Ministry of Environment and Forests.
The ETF has focussed on a wide range of issues:
- Calling for an administrative overhaul both at the union and state level, the ETF notes that there is lack of focus and attention at the highest level of the government, and that though Project Elephant was set up in 1992 it has been ‘unable to take up leadership on elephant conservation’.
- A statutory body similar to the National Tiger Conservation Authority is proposed. This new body, National Elephant Conservation Authority (NECA) would require amendments in the Wild Life Protection Act 1972 (WLPA), to give it teeth under the law. A budget of Rs 600 crore has been proposed under the 12th five-year plan for NECA.
- In a progressive idea, ETF recommends lateral recruitment of non-government personnel with requisite skills to be appointed in the NECA at the regional levels.
- Operational Reserve Level Management Advisory Committees – comprising of elected representatives (MLAs, Zilla Panchayat, Gram Panchayat and Gram Sabha members), local conservationists, officers of railways, veterinary and other departments – which would hold public hearings, are to be setup to improve governance in management.
- An important feature that is missing in our PA management is objective, ecological and administrative assessment of performance. Hence, independent evaluation of the Elephant Reserves (ER) with performance indicators to measure progress is recommended to bring in transparency.
- These days there have been increased debates about the role of PAs in wildlife conservation. However, with so many crises looming over habitat specific species it is becoming clearer that PAs act as core sites for source populations. Reemphasising this, ETF calls PAs indispensable for elephant survival and has suggested that PAs be expanded to include critical habitats and corridors or else be declared as Community or Conservation Reserves as seen fit.
- However, expanding or declaring new PAs, however small they are, is a herculean task in the current socio-political situation. Opposing interests, whether legitimate or not, are too many. Hence declaring the elephant corridors as part of the PAs that are currently within or adjoining the PAs as suggested by the ETF would be a challenging job to accomplish.
- The world over and in India, elephants have experienced massive contractions of their geographical range due to modifications of their habitats and landscapes. This collapse of range needs to be halted if wide-ranging species have to be saved, and saved with minimum conflict with humans. Larger external pressures have pushed elephants into fragmented habitats and this needs larger habitat management processes.
- To reduce further fragmentation of elephant habitats it is recommended that entire ERs are declared as Ecologically Sensitive Areas under the Environment Protection Act. The ETF suggests that infrastructure development like mining within ERs be checked or permitted under strict ecological safety standards, and urges continuance of local livelihood activities subject to existing norms. To check diverting wildlife habitats without species specific criteria, a new approach termed as Elephant Specific EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment) is suggested for permitting developmental projects within ERs. The ETF has also recognised the long pending issue of quality and rigour of EIAs and licensing of the consultants.
- Civil societies have identified 88 critical elephant corridors across the country based on various ecological and social parameters. ETF has ranked the importance of these corridors and a Rs 200 crore budget for corridor securement is proposed under NECA. Apart from this it is also suggested to use Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA) for habitat consolidation and in particular for purchasing corridors. The corridors have been divided into two categories based on ecological priority and feasibility.
- There are few cases where forestland encroachment, especially for developmental activities or commercial plantations, has been dealt seriously in the country. This soft approach on a serious issue has bolstered forest encroachers. On a positive note ETF has suggested amendment of the WLPA so that a minimum fine of 10 lakh and imprisonment of not less than two years to be imposed on encroachers in ERs.
- On the issue of linear fragmentations such as railway tracks, roads and high tension power lines several suggestions including regulating night traffic passing through elephant corridors and brining railway projects under the purview of EIA has been advised.
- The report calls for rationalisation of ER boundaries based on ecological principles rather than the current ad-hoc boundaries. With this background the ETF has identified 10 elephant landscapes (including the current ERs, see table) for prioritising suggested activities.