India is one of the seventeen mega diverse countries of the world. Being home to 7-8% of the world’s recorded species, from top predators such as the Asiatic lions, Bengal tigers to large herbivores such as the Asian elephant and one-horned rhino, the country sustains several complex ecosystems. This rich fauna has not just been an integral part of India’s environmental history, but has also been instrumental in shaping several indigenous cultures. In fact, many religions in India stem from animism which entails that soul exists in animals and plants. Today, however, this intimate connection of India with its wildlife seems to have been lost as it is increasingly being sacrificed for the sake of development of the economy.
This shifting narrative about India’s wildlife can be perfectly encapsulated by the current situation of Asian elephants. Elephants have enjoyed a special place in India’s culture and tradition. They were used as a means of transport for the royalties and to fight battles, as has been captured by various frescoes. Most important, however, is the status of elephant as a deity in the form of Lord Ganesha. For over 70% of the population, elephants hold a religious importance. Keeping in mind the aforementioned, one might suppose that India’s elephants must enjoy a high degree of protection. While elephants do enjoy the highest status in the Wildlife Protection Act of India, 1972 as Schedule I species, unfortunately the situation on the ground paints a different picture altogether.
It is disappointing to learn that today only about 27,000 wild elephants remain in India, as opposed to a million a decade ago as indicated by research. There has been a 98% nose dive in the wild elephant population. India is home to over 50% population of Asian elephants in the world, making it the last strong-hold of Asian elephants. However, in this stronghold too, the situation for Asian elephants seems dire. They face an all-encompassing threat such as shrinkage of their forest ranges, habitat defragmentation, poaching for their body parts and captivity, and anthropogenic pressure. It has become commonplace nowadays to open the newspaper and read about deaths of wild elephants, or even the ill-treatment meted to captive elephants.
Captivity of elephants is easily associated with the cultural history of India and is treated as an acceptable practice. However, this cultural narrative tends to mask the sad reality of the illegal live elephant trade that takes place across India. Unlike their African cousins, poaching of elephants for captivity is a serious threat to the survival of the species. An elephant removed from the wild is simply an elephant that could have bred in the future and contributed to the strengthening of the wild elephant population.
In captivity, an elephant tends to face unfavourable and stressful conditions which greatly hampers their physical and mental well-being. Captive elephants are routinely found to be suffering from health issues such as foot-rot, arthritis and compromised nutrition. These elephants are worked to the point of exertion and once their health problems hinder their locomotion, they are disposed off. Breeding of elephants in captivity is extremely difficult, which means that capture of another elephant sustains this trade.
According to the census conducted in 2018 by Project Elephant, there are 2,454 captive elephants in India. This number is likely to decrease as the elephants will subsequently age and the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 forbids the capture of new calves to keep the captive elephant population afloat. Access to veterinary aid is a rarity for most keepers. Oftentimes, simple injuries become chronic in nature due to untimely treatment or in the absence of any treatment. Foot injuries especially have the tendency of becoming fatal to elephants. It is, thus, but imperative to be able to improve the living conditions of these elephants.
Currently, another big challenge that elephants in India face is the increasing space crunch. With an exploding population, more and more invasions are being made into the historical habitats of elephants which has led to increasing habitat fragmentation. For large herbivores such as elephants who consume an equivalent of 5-10% of their body mass in terms of food, they require large swathes of forests to sustain their herds and migrate to continuously feed, and to also give a chance for the vegetation to regrow.
However, shrinking forests means lesser availability of food, which incentivises the movement of elephants out of forested lands to crop lands at the forest fringes. With food easily available, crop raiding quickly becomes a risky but survival activity that the elephants take, bringing them into conflict with people. This conflict often ends with both humans and elephants dying, and a quick change in the discourse of elephants takes place as they become ‘nuisances’ from ‘deities.’ Human-elephant conflict (HEC) in bare terms is a problem of co-existence in a space limited world.
Today as our physical world is changing fast, it is important to take a moment to reflect on and reinvent our relationship with elephants. Conservation and welfare of elephants in India provides us with a critical lens to develop holistic policies that work both for humans as well as animals. Tied to the survival of elephants in India is the survival of India’s biodiversity!