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Editorial Articles


Issue no 25, 18-24 September, 2021

Elephant Conservation

Challenges and Efforts

 

Dr. Ritesh Joshi and Kanchan Puri

 

Asian elephants are listed as "endangered" on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of threatened species. India has the largest number of wild Asian Elephants, estimated at 29,964 according to 2017 census by Project Elephant, i.e. about 60% of the species' global population. Indian Elephant is declared as National Heritage Animal (Schedule I of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972) and has also been listed in the Appendix I of the Convention of the Migratory Species. It is widely acknowledged that ecological role of wildlife species greatly influences ecosystem. Even from a tourism perspective alone, presence of wildlife gives a further boost to the tourism industry. Elephants are one of the most iconic and keystone species in forests, who play a crucial role in maintaining forest ecosystem and biodiversity. Several species are associated with elephants to fulfill their routine life requirements. Elephants perform different activities in forests, which facilitates the interaction of other animals with their ecosystem. Movement of elephants over large landscapes and wide range of habitats also helps the territorial animals in interacting with other living communities. World Elephant Day (August 12) underlines the importance of the protection of the world's elephants, and to create awareness on elephant conservation. It reminds the general public as well as various stakeholders to help protect elephants, preventing illegal poaching, conserving elephant habitats etc.

Role of Elephants In Forest Ecosystem

Elephants are intelligent and highly social animals and their capability to respond as per the changing environment makes them less vulnerable. They are known for their large migrations across myriad types of landscapes. An adult elephant needs more than 100 kilograms of food every day, which range from grasses to barks, fruits and bulbs. Availability of large migratory corridors help the elephants to move across larger landscapes and breed conveniently, ensuring their long-term survival. However, the population of this giant animal remains fragmented because of the conversion of natural habitats into agricultural fields, industrial areas and human habitations. Elephants play a major role in restructuring forest ecosystem and biodiversity. They have cascading effects in altering the vegetation regeneration in forests, providing habitat, water and nutrients to other animals.

Elephants as Seed Dispersers

Elephants are one of the crucial species that disperse the seeds of trees. Since a mature elephant consumes nearly 100 kilograms of food every day, the large volume of forage intake by the elephants allow them to disperse large numbers of seeds. Elephants aid in the dispersal and subsequent germination of seeds, by their fruit-eating habits; passing through the elephant's gut helps break the dormancy of seeds and speeds up their germination.

Elephants as Habitat Providers

Terrestrial mammals regularly use trails inside the forests, generally prepared by the elephants. Interestingly, other wild animals also use these trails during their routine activities. As the dung of elephant comprises seeds and nutrients, the movement of elephants across the open and degraded forests helps in regeneration of vegetation, which in alters the wilderness of the ecosystem. Such movements of elephants are helpful in maintaining forest trails.

Elephants as Water Providers

Elephants can sense the underground water sources. They dig holes in potential dry river-beds using their forefeet and trunk, especially during summer to drink fresh water. By nature, elephants do not prefer drinking dirty water. These small water points are later utilized by the small animals like spotted deer, sambar deer, small Indian mongoose, Asiatic jackal, small Indian civet, wild boar, etc. Besides some birds including peacock, parakeet, pigeon and jungle fowl also utilize such water sources to drink and bathe. Such behaviours of elephants facilitate establishing of associations with other animals, especially during harsh conditions. All these functions performed by the elephant can influence the distribution of animals as well, which may affect the population dynamics of wildlife.

Elephants as Ecotourism Promoters

In India, wildlife tourism is increasing mainly because of the presence of rare species like Bengal tigers, Asian elephants, Asian one horned rhinoceros, Asiatic lions, Nilgiritahr and marten and red panda. Further presence of bird species and arrival of winter migratory birds attract tourists. Unique landscapes and frequent sighting of wild animals form major tourist attractions during wildlife expedition. Elephant in Indian forests is a magnificent species which plays a vibrant role in increasing tourist footfall.

Elephants as Indicator Species

For centuries, it has been considered that animals have a sixth sense, as they have some senses more developed than those of human beings. It is said that animals can sense changes in the environment and are capable of sensing and predicting natural calamities before they occur. Human beings are able to hear sounds that are in the range of 20 hertz to 20,000 kilohertz, and cannot detect any sound beyond this range. However, some animals transcend this range and can sense these sounds Various wildlife experts pointed out that animals have intense hearing abilities which make them capable of feeling the earth's vibration before the human beings.

 

Connell-Rodwell, a renowned wildlife expert in the Stanford University, has given a detailed insight on elephant communication, which reveal that elephants communicate over long distances using low-pitched sounds that are barely audible to human beings. Nearly two decades ago, her studies indicated new direction by proposing that low-frequency calls also generate powerful vibrations in the ground-seismic signals that elephants can feel, and even interpret, via their sensitive trunks and feet. Earlier it was known that seismic communication is common in small animals, including spiders, scorpions, insects and a few vertebrate species, such as white-lipped frogs, kangaroo rats and golden moles. During the tsunami, she recorded that trained elephants in Thailand were agitated and fled to higher grounds before the devastating wave struck, thus saving their own lives and those of the tourists riding on their backs.

Challenges and Conservation efforts

The challenges for Asian elephant's conservation are - habitat loss and fragmentation, human elephant conflict, poaching and illegal trade of elephant parts. In order to provide financial and technical support for management of wild Asian elephants, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC), launched 'Project Elephant' in 1992. The project aims at ensuring longterm survival of viable populations of elephants in their natural habitats by protecting the elephants, their habitats and migration corridors.

 

For management of train-elephant collisions, measures are being taken by Zonal Railways in coordination with MoEFCC which include:

·         Imposition of permanent and temporary speed restrictions in identified elephant corridors.

·         Provision of signage board to warn loco pilots about identified elephant corridors.

·         Sensitization of train crew and Station Masters on a regular basis.

·         Need based clearance of vegetation on the sides of track within railway land.

·         Construction of underpasses and ramps for movement of elephants at identified locations.

·         Installation of Honey Bee sound system to dissuade elephants from coming near the tracks.

·         Provision of fencing at isolated locations both by Railway and Forest Department.

·         Deputing Forest Department staff in Railway control offices to liaison with Railway and engagement of elephant trackers by Forest Department for timely action by alerting Station Masters and Loco Pilots.

·         Frequent coordination meetings between State Forest Department and Railway Department.

Further, Best Practices of humanelephant Conflict Management in India published by MoEFCC 2020, compiles all the management strategies adopted by State Forest Departments for mitigation of human-elephant Conflicts. Recently, the Ministry also launched national portal on human elephant conflict called "Surakhsya" for collection of real time information. At present, the beta version is available for data testing. It will help to set the data collection protocols and to enable policy formulation along with preparation of action plans for mitigation of conflicts. Protected area managers of different elephant ranges along with the frontline wildlife staff could develop a rigorous framework. Since elephants play an important role in the entire ecosystem functions, restoration of large fragmented forest stretches and corridors for elephant migration and habitat management are of paramount importance. Moreover, local community and stakeholder's participation in conservation initiatives and habitat monitoring would be an effective management and conservation strategy.

(The authors work in Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Government of India, New Delhi-110003. They can be reached at genetics_1407@yahoo.co.in).

 Views expressed are personal.