Gajah: Icon of a new kind

Icons are not new to conservation. But the recent 2010 report of the Elephant Task Force argued that the Asian elephant could serve as an icon of a new kind. It would, if made the national heritage animal, bridge those who valued it as a cultural symbol and others for whom it was an emblem of the vanishing wild.
The task of saving India’s wild elephants is symbolic of the wider challenge of living at peace with nature. No species better symbolises our cultures and it is no accident that a tusker was the symbol of that historic body, the Constituent Assembly of India. No large animal perhaps has such a major presence across India’s diverse ecosystems as this keystone species.
But knowledge of its biology may not be enough to protect the elephant. Economic growth puts pressure on the 110,000 square kilometres of elephant habitat that is still intact. Ivory poachers target the males for tusks and some populations, in fact, have one male to a 100 females.
To protect the gajah we need to address the societal, cultural dimensions of the conflict. As chairman of a 12-member Task Force on gajah from February to August this year, it was good to know how much positive energy this country has to attain these goals.
The Elephant Task Force, therefore, suggested and government has accepted that the Asian elephant be declared National Heritage Animal.
It is possible to have an India where elephants live securely in the wild. It does not yet face a crisis of extinction like the tiger does. But to give a sharp focus for better planning to secure habitat and species, India needs a National Elephant Conservation Authority like the one for the tiger.
The 32 elephant reserves may not need expansion but they need to be protected better. To do this requires fresh recruitment of guards and watchers, preferably local youth from the adivasi communities.
Equally so, the assessment of numbers and habitats is best done by qualified biologist-led teams of trained personnel. Mere total counts are of little use. It is vital to know the gender ratio to assess if poachers are succeeding or not. Equally so the age clusters, to know if the populations are breeding well. A consortium of research scholars and institutes will, if set up, draw on the best of science to aid efforts.
It is critical to address human conflicts with elephants. Four-hundred people die and 100 elephants are killed in conflict over crops. Higher ex-gratia payments are a must and taluka- or tehsil-level hearings must be held twice in the crop cycle to settle claims.
India is also home to 3,500 captive elephants. We have ancient traditions of care, including the Gajashastra. Scientists, including those in India, have thrown new light on the intelligence and emotional capabilities of elephants and their complex social relationships.
Just as hunting was outlawed, eventually, though not right now, catching elephants has to be re-thought. Those already in human captivity must get the best care. For this, mahouts and vets — neither of whom have good service conditions — need a better deal.
Forest protection has helped halt spread of the plough and tractor. Protected areas provided habitats that were intact, like Corbett or Kaziranga parks. The levels of poaching for ivory are less than the peak of the late-1990s. The regard for these huge neighbours by rural people have also helped its survival.
But there is no reason for complacency. Infrastructure projects if not planned or located with care can destroy forest habitat, while local pressures can degrade them. Corridors that connect viable populations have to remain intact. Or else elephant populations will get cut off and inbred.
The report argues: “The best of our science and our democratic institutions have to mesh together and solve real life problems and crises”.
An India without elephants is possible but surely not desirable. And an India with elephants living in safety brings many advantages.
The elephant can be emblem of a new equation with the forest. Its forest home can be a living library at a time when we need to know more about climate change and hydrology.
Given will and wisdom, India can give Asia a new lead. India can help bring together the 50 countries in Africa and Asia where elephants are found in the wild. Asia in particular can see the “Look East” policy and make it a symbol for peaceful collaboration.
This has a practical dimension. Nepal and India can cooperate to protect the Terai. Bangladesh and Meghalaya have elephants that cross borders. Bhutan and India already have the Manas Park that straddles the international frontier.
Security for the gajah is about our own ecological future. It can help craft a new approach to conservation. In bringing gajah and the prajah on one platform, we can shift our systems of conservation from urban roots to one with roots in our society at large.
To make villagers partners means that village and mofussil children must be the focus of nature education. It calls for speedy relief and viable protection of those who incur serious loss due to crop damage. The number is estimated at over half-a-million families across India.
A new beginning with not just more funds, but quality science and participation are a must. It is in this reorientation of the way government, knowledge and citizens work in unison that we will face an uphill task.
Will India save the species and in doing so map a new course? The future lies open. Can we possibly succeed? The challenges are immense. Yes, we can accomplish the task but will we? The future of the elephant hinges — and our own ecological security hinges too, on the efficacy of our response.

Mahesh Rangarajan is an environmental historian and most recently was chairman of the Elephant Task Force

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