Crocodile tears for the elephant

#1 Aug 18th, 2017, 23:28
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Dec 2008
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Shrinking forest corridors force elephants out in the open at Kestopur near Bagdogra. Photo: Anujit Basu,

At two different forums last weekend, I heard the current Union environment minister, Harsh Vardhan, and one of his predecessors, Jairam Ramesh, speaking their minds. The former minister acknowledged the “tough choices” he faced when he had to give forest clearances for development projects. Now a Rajya Sabha member, Ramesh hinted that more difficult days lay ahead—and that environment protection laws could see further dilution.

His parting shot: “It is near impossible for any minister to focus on long-term environment protection over tangible economic interests. As ministers and leaders of political parties, we all make tall promises in our speeches but fail miserably in implementing most of them.”

That, unfortunately, seems to be true.

Vardhan spoke at length at Delhi’s Teen Murti Bhawan on 12 August, on the occasion of World Elephant Day. Ironically, he was more interested in talking about the elephant god, Ganesh, than tackling one of the immediate challenges affecting elephant conservation—the human-elephant conflict that has affected lives and livelihoods, even as it has displaced pachyderms from their habitats. Vardhan, in fact, wanted wild elephants in every state and wondered why Maharashtra, which celebrates Ganesh Utsav with fervour, has so few of them. The state recorded only six wild elephants in the latest count.

It was at the same function that Raman Sukumar, an elephant expert and scientific adviser for the census, announced the results of the latest count: India has 27,132 elephants. The pachyderm population is stable, despite a decrease of 3,000 elephants (10%) from the last count in 2012. The change in numbers is attributed to the latest scientific methods being used for counting under the All-India Synchronized Asian Elephant Population Estimation 2017. According to the report, another figure has remained stable over the last decade —“an average of 400 people are killed each year in human-elephant conflict and about 100 elephants die.”

According to the census, elephants are found in 22 states and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. They are now confined to four isolated landscapes—north (Terai region), the North-East, central-east and south India. South India is home to 11,960 pachyderms, followed by the North-East (10,139). A majority of elephants, in fact, are now found outside protected areas such as national parks and wildlife sanctuaries. Today, they can be spotted in places like Bankura in south Bengal and Hosur in Tamil Nadu, where there was no record of the species a decade ago.

Elephants in the Gorumara National Park. Photo: ©Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters

The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS-India), a non-governmental organization whose scientists first raised an alarm in 2015, is sceptical of the new numbers. Their research paper, Patterns And Determinants Of Habitat Occupancy By The Asian Elephant In The Western Ghats Of Karnataka, India, states: “Elephant numbers obtained from the Synchronized Elephant Census (SEC) lack scientific rigour, both because of the unreliability of the methods used and the mismatch between the population parameters and the spatial scale at which they are estimated. As noted by the Elephant Task Force Report 2010, the block and waterhole count methods used in the current SEC are not rooted in estimation theory, are subject to a number of biases, and are likely to produce misleading elephant population numbers.”

The WCS-India team has been rooting for robust science-based programmes to monitor elephant populations through habitat occupancy, population distribution and territorial expanse rather than a head count. “Elephant populations must be scientifically monitored to permit assessments of their dynamics and for the prioritization of protection and conflict mitigation efforts at important conservation sites across their range. Almost half of the Asian elephants’ habitat is either fragmented or heavily impacted by humans. An upswing in incidents of human-elephant conflict is severely exacerbating the endangered status of the species,” says Varun Goswami, a conservation biologist at WCS-India who focuses on Asian elephants, .

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