Tigers? What About The Elephants
Stranded. On the terrace of a Pollution Control Research Centre building on the edge of Rajaji National Park in Uttarakhand. It’s nearing midnight, and we have been here for hours. I am hungry, exhausted and the bones are stiff with the effort of sitting still, silent, as if we weren’t here at all. To fool, well, to try fool, the elephant barely ten feet away from us.
He appears preoccupied at the moment – chomping on luscious bamboo, an ele-delicacy. At the same time he is alert, wary. A cough explodes into the silence – and the animal freezes, tense, then snaps his mighty head toward the source of sound, trumpeting loudly, his trunk probing the air… inches away from us. It’s scary, he’s angry and insecure at the disturbance. It exhilarating, to be so close to a wild tusker. But most of all, it’s worrying.
For he is a ‘problem’ animal, having strayed into human habitation – never mind that the elephant remembers it as a forest, and Homo sapiens are the original encroachers – having bulldozed the greens over with concrete. The elephant has been frequenting this complex that stands between Rajaji and Hardwar. I accompanied the forest staff who have been keeping vigil here every night to preempt any untoward incident, and to try arrive at a solution, to somehow drive him back to the jungle.
They are uprooting the bamboo, had the broken wall rebuilt, applied a mix of waste-mobil oil and red chilli powder – considered a deterrent – at all entry points, anything to lure him away from human habitation.
For, here he is doomed. He may be slaughtered for his tusks – ‘white gold’ that fetches millions in the international illegal market. Like the magnificent tusker shot just a few days back, one bullet each in the pelvic and pectoral girdle. Death wasn’t instant, it took the animal four agonising days to waste away.
He may be punished for crossing boundaries into ‘people country’, like the elephant killed in the same week in a paddy field, or the one in May last year who had no less than a hundred bullets pumped into him.
I look at ‘our’ elephant... a gray, ghostly shape, ivory glinting silver in the moonlight, and agonise over his future. The issue is much beyond him, though. Measures to drive away this elephant were well-meant, but ad-hoc – nowhere a solution to the elephantine problems that loom over this beleaguered animal. His home, Rajaji National Park, identified as a critical tiger and elephant habitat, is heavily fragmented – criss-crossed by highways, railway lines, canals, and surrounded by three booming cities-Dehradun, Hardwar, Rishikesh, an industrial complex, villages, ashram, destroying ancient elephant migratory paths. The holy city of Hardwar is also an unholy hub of illegal wildlife trade in ivory, tiger and leopard skins etc.
The elephants of Rajaji have a Damascus Sword hovering over their heads. Indeed, as do the elephants of India. Only about five per cent of its original habitat remains, comprising fragmented pockets of forests. Elephants are nomadic creatures dictated by ancient instincts leading them to sources of food and water, especially in times of scarcity. But their forests and migratory paths are swallowed by dams, devastated by mines or taken over by agriculture. Homeless and starved, elephants maraud crops, destroy structures and occasionally kills helpless people protecting their homes. In retaliation, people poison, electrocute or ‘blow up’ elephants, by placing crude bombs in jackfruits or bananas, that unsuspecting pachyderms eat. Poaching is a threat too.
For example, in Orissa, the number of tuskers plunged to 271 in 2005 against the previous count of 363 of 2002. Currently, their numbers are estimated to be just about 200. Yet the Ministry of Environment and Forests are in denial, yes, of course, conflict is an issue but maybe that’s because the elephant population is increasing. Officially, there are about 27,700 wild elephants, an increase of over 1,000 from five-years-ago. Sounds like action replay of the tiger saga. When we vehemently denied the tiger crisis, and indeed insisted that their numbers were increasing by the year. Anyone who countered the claim was crucified. Till a reality check revealed that only about 1,400 tigers wild survive – if that.
27,700 elephants may seem like a good number, but we need to raise questions. Habitats of both elephants and tigers overlap in most parts of the country. Tiger numbers have declined mainly due to poaching, conflict and habitat loss and fragmentation, the same threats that are faced by elephants. So, how is it that elephant numbers are rising? If anything, elephants are more ‘difficult’ animals, in the sense that they are require larger ranges.
It is worthwhile to consider the situation in Africa, where more than 4,00,000 African elephants survive, yet it is feared they could be extinct by 2025 so severe is the poaching pressure. It’s time we did a reality check. Like the tiger, India has the largest Asiatic elephant population in the world. But it seems India has turned its back on Lord Ganesha, the harbinger of good fortune, in his hour of crisis.
By Prerna Singh Bindra