Out of space
Environmental and anthropogenic factors have not just degraded elephant habitats but also left them stressed leading to a change in their social behaviour
A critically injured elephant, hit by a train, in West Bengal's Dooars was seen with most of the flesh from its legs torn off and struggling to get on its feet. This happened on September 27, 2019, while this endangered and social animal was crossing railway tracks from one part of the forest to another. This is the inherent natural behaviour of this animal. In this month alone, seven elephants were killed when a herd of 40-50 elephants started to cross the railway track. This happens almost every month in different parts of India.
During my visit to Chandil in Jharkhand during November 2018, I witnessed preventive measures coined by poor farmers to protect their crops from elephants' raid. When farmers are informed about the intrusion of elephants on their crop fields, they make ready on trees with burning cloths and crackers and throw them at elephants so that they panic and run back to the forest. In addition to this, they also make fences at the entry point to villages with electricity flowing through them, particularly during night time. Despite these preventive measures, human and elephant are often injured and reportedly killed in retaliation. Torturing elephants is, according to villagers, largely justified on the basis of damaged crops leading to the suffering of the poor farmers who are dependent on these crops to sustain their livelihood. Similarly, the death of elephants hit by trains is justified in the name of human development.
If we critically evaluate the impact of so-called human development, economic growth and progress of society, victims are the rural people belonging to the lower socioeconomic group and the wild animals, who are being forced out of their natural surroundings by large agribusinesses and industrialists converting forests to farmland and industrial area respectively. Fast-receding trees alongside shrinking and fragmenting wild animal habitats are forcing the elephant to encroach upon human settlements thus, increasing incidences of human-wildlife conflict. Elephants in a herd may become violent and aggressive when they are either injured or excessively irritated by villagers or even if they assume danger to their young ones. Elephants have a strong instinctual knowledge of human vital organs and kill humans mainly by trampling over the front of the chest. The cause of this conflict is mainly because of their requirements for food and water, which are tremendous – up to 300kg of vegetable matter and 200 litres of water every day. They find human agriculture as an attractive food source, competing with people in areas where they overlap.
Naturally, huge amount of public money is being spent for infrastructure (roads, railway tracks, cities, hydropower plant, mining and bridges particularly in mountain area and others) in the name of development and progress of society as a 'proof' to establish the concern of the government, state apparatus, regulators and politicians. This development cuts across elephant habitats and makes long-range movement more and more challenging. Therefore, even as it promotes the prosperity of manufacturing companies, large agri-businesses, contractors and politicians, much can be said about the suffering of humanity and damage to the ecosystem with valuable plants and animals caused by such activities.
Many of us want to save wildlife but we have less and less space to do so because of the population explosion and rapidly increasing demands for more and more land. At present, there are more than seven billion humans on Earth, with almost 10 billion expected by 2050. The ivory trade has had a significant impact but habitat destruction caused by human population growth is a far more pervasive threat. The conflict between humans and elephants is most acute in Asia leading to the death of around 100 people and 40-50 elephants with around 300 fatalities in India. Between 2015-2018, the human-elephant conflict caused 1,713 human and 373 elephant deaths by unnatural causes. Environmental and anthropogenic factors have not just degraded elephant habitats but also left them stressed leading to a change in their social behaviour. Sadly, the land-use changes due to infrastructure development provide barriers to wildlife migrations and the availability of food and water.
Indian elephants are intelligent, social animals. They grow up to be an adult by 16-20 years of age with the average life period of 60-70 years. Adults are generally aged 20-50 years and show a typical annual physiological change which lasts for about a month known as 'MUSTH' during which the elephant become restless, violent and aggressive. Elephants also experience pleasure, pain and fear that guides them within the boundaries of survival and they share a near-identical nervous system and experience base emotions much like humans. Human and elephant brains are acted upon by the same hormones and chemicals that create mood and motivation in human. Elephants are more particular with the care they devote to their young and siblings. Elephant mothers and daughters stay together longer than any land animal – often 40 to 60 years. We are all mammals, and under the skin we are kin. Sadly, removing young elephants from their parents and sending them into captivity, as frequently observed, is largely justified on the basis that they do not feel and suffer as we do. Thereby, we ignore the feelings of other species as we love to think that humans are absolutely unique and special in every way for self-satisfaction by treating animals as our slaves. We have ridden them, dressed them up in ridiculous attire, beaten them, starved them and slaughtered them en masse. Scientists have established that elephants actually have superhuman senses. Their hearing is far better than ours. They have special sensory receptors in their feet to detect rumbles and know about the killing of other elephants from many miles away. Many elephants have been spotted running uphill before humans when a tsunami is on its way.
Human wellbeing and the survival of our ecosystem is inextricably linked. Elephants – a keystone species – play an important role in the ecosystem not only to ensure the survival of countless flora and fauna in the environment but also to ensure our prospects as a species simply by securing the space for both. Land-use planning, setting clear boundaries and limits on urban development and farming needs to be combined in a holistic approach, including mitigation at the landscape level and addressing the needs of people. Increasing the forest cover by using the land provides fodder and space for elephants and other herbivores. The conservation should not be considered as a cost or a burden but rather an investment in our own survival. The government needs to stop the occurrence of illegal settlements to save both human and elephant lives. Communities have important role to support both conservation and socio-economic development. Most importantly, poaching attracts a lot of media attention but stopping the poaching cannot solve this critical problem because habitat loss is the biggest problem. In addition to these, conserving grasslands around river systems and fringe forests around the corridor provide benefits to elephants moving long distances within their ranges. Continual maintenance of available grassland should be a management priority.
(The author is a former Senior Scientist, Central Pollution Control Board. The views expressed are strictly personal)
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