Why elephants weep

Three-fourths of my family hails from Palakkad district in Kerala. Palakkad has been known over the years for a crumbling fort, a dilapidated dam, a few failed industries and a dozen or so exceptionally brilliant bureaucrats and diplomats. But of late, elephants are the main attractions in town. A baby elephant was hauled out of a well in

early June from a residential colony, and a few kilometers away, on Independence Day, a calf was crushed by the Chennai-Mangalore Express. “There are elephants at the traffic lights near our house,” a friend said, “I think they are waiting to cross”. The animals are coming out of the woodwork, quite literally, though there is nothing for them in the town or even past it, as there is very little forest and no crop to raid either. Across the Palakkad gap they will enter Tamil Nadu in the rain-shadow of the Western Ghats.
These instances are not confined to Palakkad or to elephants alone. Two days after the Kerala rail accident, a male elephant stopped a passenger train bound for New Jalpaiguri in West Bengal for over half-an-hour, head-butting the engine in apparent frustration at one of its kin having been run over the week before. Five tigers have come out of the Pilibhit and Dudhwa forests of Uttar Pradesh and claimed 18 lives in the last 12 months. Leopards have killed over 200 people in the last 10 years in Uttarakhand alone and an equal number of leopards have been killed by people in retaliation. The animals seem to be on the fringes of the forest and on the brink of endangerment.
Why, I’d like to ask our environment minister, is this happening? “There are too many elephants or leopards or tigers” will guess the uninitiated. “The forest department has put them here,” the suffering villagers may opine. But let us not miss the forest for the beasts. We know for certain that none of these species is increasing in numbers. The country is going through a national tiger crisis; their numbers are at an all-time low. Elephant numbers have remained steady at best and have not shown any incremental increase. We do not know as much about leopards as yet. So then, what is happening? Are the beasts abandoning their text book biology and behaviour? Are we inadvertently attracting them to the fringes? Or is there something wrong with our forests?
Statistics show that 21 per cent of India is under forest cover, having grown by 3.31 million hectares in the last 10 years. This may not match China’s growth figures but it’s pretty good going, most would attest, in a country with a billion people. Why are the grateful creatures not staying put in this expanding habitat then? With `44,000 crore allocated to pushing the new target of afforestation, this is really a crucial question to answer. If our old forests and our new “forests” cannot together hold the biggest of our land mammals, the elephant, and our national animal, the tiger, within its bounds, then even the 6.35 per cent greenhouse emission reduction that we strive for through the new afforestation may not be good enough.
The Green India Mission, one of the eight arms of the National Action Plan to combat climate change, has its job cut out for it: to grow 20 million hectares of forest in the next 10 years. That is slightly more than all the protected areas in India put together. Imagine if we could, using the right mix of ecological, economic and social factors, double the Corbetts and Kanhas, the Kazirangas and Ranthambhors — simply by growing new forests!
Apart from growing the right kind of forests, there is the sub-mission of restoring existing degraded forests. Add to the Green India budget the `6,000 crore under the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority and you have `50,000 crore of new money for reviving the sagging health of our forests. All this is money paid by development agencies and industry as compensation for converting forests into infrastructure and the drivers of that elusive double-digit GDP growth.
How much of the 750,000 or so square kilometers of forest that we have is healthy? Not merely on the basis of its extent or its canopy but considering its water catchments, its biodiversity and the various other attributes that make a forest.
In human development circles it is now increasingly accepted that poverty is measured not only by economic deprivation but deprivation of a host of essential life-sustaining commodities. In the same vein, the health of forests should have a multi-pronged measure of success. It cannot be judged only by the colour green.
There are doomsayers and nay-sayers aplenty in the green movement of today. Perhaps India does not really have 21 per cent under forests, they say, and what the satellite counts as forests are the rubber plantations of southern Kerala and the tea gardens of Assam. Afforestation profits only the agencies that are entrusted with the job, say others. The humungous livestock population of this country munches through saplings faster than they are planted, many feel. These may be part truths or completely misleading, but what is important is to do an executive health check of our forests. If the scientists and foresters can’t give an answer, the minister must hear the omens from the denizens of the forest themselves. In their gradual colonisation of the fringes of their and our existence and in the daily tragedies of both our lives may lie a clue to the health of our forests. Let us listen to them for just a moment, perhaps?

Vivek Menon is a practicing wildlife conservationist and environmental commentator

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