The growing intensity of man-elephant conflict is stoking fears that the largest mammal may well become extinct by 2050. There are around 35 thousand elephants left in the world, with 25 thousand roaming the jungles of India and increasingly into human habitations. With the aim of conserving South Asian elephants, five NGOs have come together under the umbrella of the ‘Asian Elephant Alliance’ to raise 20 million pounds to secure 100 elephant corridors in India by 2025. One of the NGOs ‘Elephant Family’ is co-headed by Britain’s Prince Charles and his wife Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall. This NGO has begun a 1 million pound fund-raising drive in London, with Prince Charles primarily focusing on the elephant corridors in Assam. After all, Camilla’s brother, the late Mark Shand was a honorary chief wildlife warden of Assam, having spent considerable time in the State in his efforts toward elephant conservation. The campaign started in his memory by ‘Elephant Family’ includes several events to catch the public imagition in the West, including auction of thematically designed autorickshaws and a 500 kms autorickshaw race in India planned through known elephant destitions. Hopefully, this campaign will help create some much-needed awareness in Assam and other NE states as well about the threat to existence elephants are facing.
There has been an alarming decline of 627 sq kms in forest cover in the Northeast, as revealed by the ‘India State of Forest Report-2013’ released last year. Elephant habitats are contracting, with nearly 80 per cent of such habitats not included in protected areas. If two centuries ago, elephants could move unmolested through continuous forested areas across north and central India into the Northeast and onwards to east Asia and back, the situation has changed drastically to its detriment in the 21st century. Now with forests rapidly shrinking, elephants are forced to come out for food, raiding cropfields, plantations and graries. Even while moving from one forest to another, they find their age-old corridors blocked by concrete walls and buildings, or cut through by highways or rail tracks. The consequence for elephants is like passing through enemy territory, with man-elephant conflicts claiming on an average 50 elephants and 400 human lives in the last few years.
While reclaiming and conserving forests against the ever-increasing pressure of human habitations will be a huge effort, some useful headway can be made by securing elephant corridors. Conservationists have been stressing upon such corridors to facilitate unhindered movement of elephants and thereby allow humans and elephants to co-exist peacefully. There have been welcome initiatives by some tea estates and NGOs in Sonitpur district, the epicenter of man-elephant conflicts in the State, due to rampant tree-felling there. The focus is now more on ‘bio-fencing’, growing continuous thickets of thorny bamboos on the margins of elephant corridors to deter pachyderms from straying into fields or habitations. Some others are also experimenting by growing trees like Derris Robusta, which elephants are known to detest. These are far better options than electric fencing, which in many cases have proved fatal. The largest number of elephant deaths have been due to electrocution, followed by train hits, poisoning and poaching. As if this is not enough, the Environment ministry has reportedly come out with a proposal to treat elephants as vermin in man-elephant conflict zones, which is strange if not regressive. Rather, the reverence for elephants among village folk should be reinforced by a long-term awareness campaign to help turn the tide. Elephant experts and conservationists are calling for legal protection to elephant corridors and reserves, as well as agreements with neighbouring countries like Bhutan and Myanmar to ensure safe cross-border movement of pachyderms along desigted corridors.