Animal Conservation

View from India: elephants are essential to ecological balance

India’s elephants are endangered. Dedicated corridors must be reserved for their protection.

Uttarakhand, located at the foot of the Himalayas, recently made headlines for its elephant corridor. The Uttarakhand High Court has ordered the central government to consider giving the corridor ecologically sensitive status under the Environmental Protection Act. This corridor is within Jim Corbett National Park, so it is fitting for the court to declare that the construction of hotels, resorts or restaurants should not be permitted in the vicinity. Any form of encroachment or obstruction would likely force the animals to search for other passages leading to the nearby Kosi River. Central and state governments have been tasked with directing conservation efforts to elephant corridors and monitoring traffic at night.

The state of Uttarakhand is no exception; there have been similar situations in many parts of the country. This is how the government stepped in to save the elephants. From time to time, various initiatives were launched in favor of the conservation of elephants as their numbers began to decline. The Government of India, under the Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Climate Change (MoEFCC), started an initiative called Project Elephant in 1992. This centrally sponsored program protects pachyderms and extends to the states having wild elephants on the loose to ensure their survival in the wild, protect their habitat and elephant corridors. The MoEFCC is providing financial and technical support to key elephant range states in the country through the project.

Such an effort indicates the felt need to save elephants, and for a number of reasons. Majestic and intelligent, elephants help other animals. By way of explanation, elephants move in dense forests. Their pathways clear the way for other animals and allow sunlight to penetrate low plants. Elephants dig holes in hot summers to access water. After they die out, the remaining water is consumed by other animals. This gentle animal with a long trunk and floppy ears also helps ecology. Although the largest land mammal, elephants are herbivores. The vegetation they live on includes seeds. Seed droppings from their digestive tracts can spread for miles and aid in tree germination.

Typically, patches of land that connect two large habitats become corridors for elephants. These specific corridors allow the elephants to move freely. It is their natural habitat and a place where they are free from any interference, be it human or any kind of construction work. This corridor is their migratory route which could connect them to the forests. Elephant corridors require maintenance and protection. In 2005, the Wildlife Trust of India and the Asian Nature Conservation Foundation, in collaboration with state forestry departments, Project Elephant and researchers, identified 88 elephant corridors. All of this was detailed in a Conservation Reference Series report entitled “Right of Passage: Elephant Corridors of India”. The improvement works of these corridors have been carried out through the concerted efforts of the State Forest Departments of the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (Government of India) and conservation organizations. WTI, along with elephant experts and conservationists, ran the second edition of the publication and reported that there are 101 elephant corridors.

Elephant corridors alone will not suffice. Large tracts of land are needed for their relocation to prevent elephant-human conflicts. The country is home to 31 Elephant Reserves (ERs) notified by the Government of India. These are spread over 10 elephant landscapes. Till date, the largest number of reserves are in Assam and Odisha, with five in each state. Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the country is home to around 60% of Asian elephants and the country is committed to elephant conservation and preservation. He recently announced that the 32nd reserve will be in Tamil Nadu. A 1,197 km2 protected area in Kanyakumari and Tirunelveli will house the next Agasthiyamalai Elephant Reserve. This will bring the total area under RE to approximately 76,508 km2 in 14 states.

Elephants dying in train accidents is a sad truth. In the case of Tamil Nadu, the tracks between Madukkarai and Walayar in Coimbatore district are notorious for such tragedies. Tamil Nadu’s Ministry of Railways and Forestry Department are installing artificial intelligence (AI) systems to send alerts when elephants cross railway tracks. It is also intended to track and record the sound of elephants through acoustics. A horn would serve as an alert. A sum of 70 million rupees has been allocated by the government of Tamil Nadu for this proposed strategy.

While technology must be leveraged to prevent elephant deaths, elephants are already being tracked in real time through technology. They are monitored by satellite collars equipped with global positioning systems (GPS). GPS readings shed light on the elephant’s movements. Repeated readings can help establish a pattern in the movement. Aerial surveillance drones and hidden camera traps are other ways to monitor elephants. This can help detect human-elephant conflicts or even poaching activities.

The Indian elephant (Elephas maximus) inhabits the central and southern Western Ghats, northeastern India, eastern India and northern India and parts of the southern peninsula of India. I hope they are protected, their community grows and the trumpet gets louder.

Sign up for the E&T News email to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.