How to kill elephants – A Government Of India Blueprint
April 2011: Forget the fact that the elephant is venerated in India. The reality is that as a people we are changing the course of elephant evolution by interfering with the quintessence of its survival through our capricious behaviour that is resulting in whittling the space available to them and placing obstacles in the way of migrations that have been central to their survival.
Biologists are unable to explain to parliamentarians, economists and ministers even the most basic elephant realities – that variation (a result of genetic mutation) is critical to diversity on earth and that migration between populations is critical to gene flows, which in turn are vital to the reshuffling of genes when animals mate. In simple words: planners know little about what elephants need and probably care even less.
Across the country therefore, road, railway, hydel and mining projects are tearing apart the last few remaining compartments of elephant habitats. Here is a shameful shortlist that should act as an archival record of how the Indian government is killing wild elephants by design.
MINING IN CENTRAL INDIA: Perhaps even more permanently lethal for elephants than poaching.
Mining, especially open cast mining, has severely affected elephant conservation in the country, especially in Central India in Singhbhum (Jharkhand), Keonjhar, Mayurbhanj, Dhenkanal, Angul and Phulbani (Orissa) and in Meghalaya in the Northeast. The total forest land diverted for mining between 1980 and 2005 in India is about 95,002.6 ha. The Singbhum elephant population occupies about 2,570 sq. km. of the available forest area of the Dalma Wildlife Sanctuary and the forests of Saranda, Porhat, Kolhan, Saraikala (formerly North Chaibasa) and Dhalbhum Forest Divisions. Singhbhum has some 25 per cent of the total known reserves of haematite iron ore. In the Saranda Forest Division alone, there are 12 operational mines with a combined lease area of 81 sq. km. of which 17 sq. km. area has been opened up. This has fragmented habitats leading to greater human-elephant conflict and movement of elephants to neighbouring states of Chhattisgarh and West Bengal.
Mining leases in elephant reserves and habitats must be reviewed and halted accordingly. Newer leases must be subject to strict EIA norms. Mining should be listed as impermissible in elephant reserves. Small mines and quarries also impact habitats and these should also be reassessed. When mines are closed, the habitat must be restored with suitable indigenous species and not by just filling of pits.
THE SANKOSH MULTIPURPOSE PROJECT, WEST BENGAL: Typical of the kind of thoughtless commerce that harms wildlife today and will disrupt human life tomorrow.
Three critical elephant, tiger and rhino habitats – the Buxa Tiger Reserve and Jaldapara and Gorumara Wildlife Sanctuaries will be affected by this mega hydroelectric project which seeks to divert water through the Farakka Barage. The canals are designed to dissect the core area of the Buxa Tiger Reserve. The Mahananda Sanctuary and parts of the connecting corridors of Jamduaar Reserve Forest of Kachugaon Forest Division in Assam will also be affected. The technical viability of this scheme is suspect, yet the union government has been pushing for the project. The project prepared by the Central Water Commission (CWC) of India will comprise two dams to feed a 141 km. canal, 128 km. of which would be inside India. The canal would connect the Sankosh in the east with the Teesta in the west. Railway tracks have already affected the corridor from Sankosh to Teesta. The construction of the canal will force elephants to cross the railway track, putting them at risk.
NATIONAL HIGHWAYS AND ROAD BUILDING: Often being pushed by get-rich-quick contractors and the politicians in their payroll at the cost of natural India.
The impact of roads through elephant and other wildlife habitats goes beyond roadkills. Roads create new habitat edges by splitting up the landscape and create a barrier to elephant movement. They alter the habitat causing fragmentation and disturbance of the physical, chemical and biological environment. The elephant movement between the Dalma Wildlife Sanctuary and Saraikala Forest Division for example has been threatened by the heavy traffic on National Highway 33. The recommendations of the Elephant Task Force to carry out Environment Impact Assessments that are endorsed by independent bodies and monitored by scientists should be made applicable for any proposed road project. New road projects including widening of existing roads must require forest clearance and the National Highways Authority of India must be sensitised to wildlife conservation. Attempts must be made to build overpasses/underpasses for roads passing through corridors. Night traffic must be regulated on roads through wildlife areas.
The ELEPHANT TASK FORCE’S WISH LIST
The report of the Elephant Task Force of the MoEF recommends that the following 10 elephant landscapes be taken up on a priority basis for initiating a more integrated and comprehensive strategy for conservation. They are founded on principles of elephant habitat contiguity and have distinct populations with occasional genetic exchange. So we know what we want, but no one has yet come up with even half an idea as to how to turn these critical landscapes into safe havens for the elephants.
1. Kaziranga-Karbi Anglong-Intanki, 2. Kameng-Sonitpur, 3. East Central, 4. North Western, 5. Brahmagiri-Nilgiri-Eastern Ghats, 6. Eastern South Bank, 7. North Bengal-Greater Manas, 8. Meghalaya, 9. Anamalai-Nelliampathy-High Range, 10. Periyar-Agasthyamalai
MURDER ON THE TRACKS: Insensitivity on the part of the railways is responsible for the murder of several elephants with the Northeast being a hotspot.
In September 2010, seven elephants were mowed down by a goods train in Jalpaiguri. The number of elephant deaths in the Northeast is particularly heart breaking, especially since they could be easily avoided by the slowing down of trains in known elephant passages. Since 1987, more than 150 animals have died on elephant tracks. Just a few precautionary measures by the railways in protected zones can prevent this. In Rajaji, a Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) study found that high speeds were one of the reasons apart from the presence of perennial water sources on one side of the track which forced elephants to cross during the summer. Other reasons for the high number of accidents included sharp and blind turns and thick vegetation along the track affecting visibility, steep banks on both sides of the track and the garbage dumped along the track. WTI has been able to initiate a programme that has drastically reduced the accidents in Rajaji using a combination of night patrols, speed enforcement and high-level workshops to implement mitigation measures. It is vital that similar initiatives are implemented in all problem tracks around the country.
LARGE DAMS, RESERVOIRS AND CANALS: The World Bank has been responsible for financing more dam projects in India than any other lending agency. This has been at the cost of elephants, tigers and other wild species.
The elephant population in Hassan and Kodagu districts in Karnataka has been at the receiving end of construction activities over the last four decades that have resulted in severe loss and fragmentation of their habitat. According to Sanjay Gubbi, “The construction of the Harangi, Hemavathi and Chiklihole reservoirs, the flumes that carry water for cultivation and other related disturbances in the form of large-scale human settlements due to these construction activities have resulted in the northern forests of Kattepura, Yadavanad-Aanekaad to be disconnected from the southern forests of Dubare, Mavukal, Devamachi, Anechowkoor which further connected them to the Nagarahole National Park. As a result the northern elephant populations are now disjointed from their southern habitats. The forests on the western slopes of the Ghats have also been sliced due to linear intrusions such as highways, power lines, pipelines, railway line and recently by mini-hydel projects. In this area the elephants get to the end of their habitats even if they stretch their trunks. These small numbers of elephants are now isolated amidst human habitations and crop fields and are the cause of conflict in the region. Unfortunately the people in this area are bearing the brunt of mistakes made by planners during the 60s and 70s.”
An irrigation project that could have a major impact on elephant movement is planned across the river Brutanga in Nayagarh district in Orissa. The proposed submergence area and the proposed canal (connecting Brutanga Reservoir and Kuanria Reservoir) are regularly used by elephants during their journey from the north bank of the river Mahanadi to the south bank of the river Mahanadi and back. Construction of dams and other projects in elephant corridors, will only lead to heightened man-animal conflict, and hence projects such as the Brutanga irrigation dam should not be permitted.
HIGH TENSION TRANSMISSION LINES: These have cut swatches through our forests that have been severely degraded, apart from causing uncounted elephant deaths.
High tension electric lines passing through forest areas and the illegal tapping of wires by villagers to use as barriers to prevent crop raiding have resulted in several elephant electrocutions in Orissa, North Bengal, Karnataka and several other states. Authorities must maintain a height limit for high voltage wires so that animals are unable to reach them. Special regulations must be in place to lay high voltage lines in elephant reserves and also funds allocated to clear vegetation along electric lines that remain unused or misused. A compensation and requisite prosecution plan should be place in case of death of elephants due to electrocution.
|Orissa’s Pachyderm problems |
Apart from several mines (especially in Keonjhar and Sundergarh districts) and industries (especially in Angul district, like that of the Jindals, who have been in the news recently for violating the Forest Conservation Act) and several minor irrigation projects that have been fragmenting elephant habitats across Orissa, the three big threats to the long-term future of Orissa’s elephants are the Brutanga Project, the Vijaywada-Ranchi Highway and the Khurda Road-Balangir Railway. The proposed 1,200 km. plus two lane Vijayawada-Ranchi Highway will tear through almost all major forests of Orissa, across the length of the state, fragmenting elephant habitats. The proposed 350 km. Khurda Road-Balangir railway line will split the Mahanadi Elephant Reserve from the proposed (cleared by centre, later rejected by state) South Orissa Elephant Reserve, splitting two major populations, escalating conflict in the region and exposing several elephants to the threat of death on railway tracks.
The Brutanga Project. Details here: http://www.junglediaries.blogspot.com/, see “Dam, canal, threaten Orissa’s elephants”.
By Aditya Panda