When a serving bureaucrat raises red flags on species conservation one ought to wake up and see the devil in detail. The future of Asian elephants is at a crossroads in India, as forest habitats dwindle and elephant-human conflicts increase.
On the launch of Jumbos on the Edge: The Future of Elephant Conservation in India by Sanjeev Kumar Chadha—an Indian Forest Service officer, currently managing director of National Agricultural Cooperative Marketing Federation of India Ltd (NAFED)—the minister for environment, forest and climate change Bhupender Yadav emphasised on people’s awareness and participation as the crucial step in conserving both flora and fauna, while ensuring life and livelihood.
The Asian elephant is an integral part of the forest ecosystem and biodiversity. The elephant is a national heritage animal of India, with the highest degree of protection under the Indian Wildlife Protection Act 1972. However, human-elephant conflict is a challenging issue for elephant management and conservation. The environment ministry refers to human-elephant conflict as the negative interaction between people and elephants, leading to a negative impact on people—human death and injury, crop damage, loss of property—as well as on elephants or their habitats. Chadha has elaborated on this issue in great detail with case studies, followed by recommended mitigation strategies and management interventions.
It’s a big challenge in a country with 1.3 billion people to provide space for species like elephants to move and perform their role in the ecosystem. Pachyderms need forest corridors to move constantly for food and water. No one forest patch can sustain the elephant’s appetite. Chadha writes that on an average an elephant eats around 240 kg in weight a day. As India embarks towards economic prosperity, the elephant is bound to face obstacles on account of fragmentation of landscape, genetic isolation and biotic interference. People often see species conservation in isolation and not in context to the habitat they require to thrive.
Chadha’s narrative is substantiated with studies and valuable data. He observes that during the last three decades, the country has seen tremendous change in rural and urban landscape, especially in elephant habitats, on account of continuous development and upgrade of infrastructure. This, he writes, has been more pronounced in Odisha, where human-elephant interactions have gone downhill, despite elephants being revered as gods. He writes extensively on the mitigation of human-elephant conflict in Dhenkanal district of Odisha.
Due to anthropogenic pressure, the historical range of elephants in India has shrunk, confining the animal into distinct geographical zones. The Indian subcontinent has an estimated elephant population of about 26,400-29,000, which accounts for over 50 per cent of the wild elephant population in Asia. This population is split into four groups—north, northeastern, east and south.
A common challenge in species conservation is how to incorporate species movements into management objectives. The challenge of increasing linear infrastructure (highways, railway lines, new power transmission lines, irrigation canals, mining and power projects) through the forest landscapes is a serious one. Chadha throws light on mitigation measures to be adopted at the inception stage, so as to reduce the impact in elephant landscapes already fragmented by varied land uses. The designs of different solutions explained in the book can be easily adapted to different landscapes.
This is an extremely useful book for conservation practitioners, policy makers, forest department officials and others to understand issues related to elephant depredation in human settlements and the fragmentation of elephant landscapes.
(This appeared in the print edition as "Grand Trunk Roads")