Its imposing bulk, with its pendulous proboscis, is imposing; its capacity to wreak havoc in ancient warfare or if it’s disturbed is terrifying too. But the elephant is an acutely sensitive and gentle animal that follows rigidly atavistic social norms. The whole herd celebrates a newborn calf; when a male reaches reproductive age, it is pushed away from the herd by matriarchs to avoid inbreeding—elephant society is one of the most evolved in nature. Along with its majesticity, it is celebrated as such too—in traditional tales in the Panchatantra and the Jatakas it’s held up as a creature imbued with wisdom; as a rare animal which sheds tears, like us, from emotional distress (elephants experience post-traumatic stress disorder like humans from trauma), it’s perhaps a natural choice for ancient, and modern-day, anthropomorphism. Thus, the outpouring of national grief over the death of a pregnant elephant in Kerala’s Palakkad is natural. Yet, in the same week, two more elephants would have died a death as painful somewhere else in India. According to government data, an average of 102 elephants died unnatural deaths every year between 2014 and 2019.
Consider this: a train mowed down five elephants in Assam’s Hojai in February 2018. That year, seven elephants were electrocuted by a high-tension wire in Odisha’s Dhenkanal. The Wildlife Society of Odisha says about 100 elephants were killed in accidents during 2018-19 in Odisha alone! “Elephants travel hundreds of kilometers through fixed corridors for food. As railway lines, roads, canals, high-tension wires, and quarries disrupt these, what will the stressed animals do?” says WSO’s Biswajit Mohanty. They have little choice but to venture into villages and raid farms, leading to man-animal conflicts. Elephants have killed over 2,300 humans between 2014 and 2019.
The destruction of elephant corridors is a chief reason leading to deaths. But who is to be blamed? The government, largely. The ministry of environment last year gave clearance for mining in 1,70,000 hectares of pristine Hasdeo Arand forests in Chhattisgarh. They include elephant corridors. The National Board of Wildlife recently allowed Coal India Limited to conduct open cast mining in an additional 41 hectares of the Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve in Assam.
While wild elephants (about 27,000) face disruptions, the lot of those in captivity is worse. Captive elephants in India number between 2,600 and 3,000—used for temples, tourist rides, even for wedding processions. To subdue and train young elephants, mahouts subject them to great pain. The situation of tuskers is no better in temples.
How does this happen when the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, gives elephants the highest protection? Ownership certificates, initially permitted by the Act for those already in possession of elephants, have continued, owing to poor enforcement of the law. Oversight has led to a trafficking of sorts.
“At times, young elephants are caught in the Northeast and sent to temples in Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat. The owners claim they are unable to take care of them and are giving them away. Something does not seem right here,” says Suparna Ganguly, co-founder of Wildlife Research and Rehabilitation Centre.
India, certainly, is no country for elephants.