Elephants are considered sacred in India. It is the living embodiment of the Hindu god Lord Ganesha, an elephant-headed deity who symbolizes wisdom and prosperity. But the harsh treatment and declining population of wild elephants shows the reality is quite conflicting from what we perceive.
The rising human population and their desperation to fulfil their needs at the cost of innocent animal lives can lead to the extinction of this already endangered giant mammal species in the coming years. There are many causes behind this deadly scenario. Loss of habitat, poaching, human-elephant conflicts, electrocution, train accidents accounts for most of the elephant deaths happening in the country.
According to World Wide Fund for Nature, today, the elephant population in the country ranges from 20,000-25,000. Ten years back, the number was around ten lakhs. There is a direct decrease of a little over 98% in the number of great Indian elephants. These statistics should be enough for us to understand the severity of the problem.
There are about 29 wildlife reserves that serve as a suitable environment for elephants in the country as they like to live close to freshwater sources. These reserves constitute an area of about 65,000 sq. kilometres which may seem ample. But with escalating human population comes the shooting demand for land. We have started encroaching forested lands for plantations, electricity lines, railways, dams, etc. Our inability to understand the concept of co-existence is the root cause of endangerment and further extinction of most wildlife species. And it turns out elephants are no exception. The rising deaths of elephants due to electrocution is a firm example of how the imbalance between urban development and the environment leads to human-animal conflicts and loss of wildlife. A month back, an elephant aged 4-5 years died after it came in contact with an electric fence set up by a villager practising farming on an encroached forested land. An RTI reply by Union Ministery reported that from 2015-2020, around 500 elephants lost their lives due to electrocution. In the year 2019, it caused about 60.6% of total deaths. If you go through more cases like these, you will notice that sometimes authorities are informed beforehand about the low-lying wires in the region. But unfortunately, no actions are taken until an innocent animal loses its life.
We are today connecting the entire nation through various transportation channels. Extending railway lines to even the most remote regions of the country. Sometimes, these tracks pass through forested lands inhabited by wild animals leading to numerous accidents and deaths. The Ministery of Environment, Forest and Climate Exchange reported that 186 elephants lost their lives getting hit by a train in the last ten years.
A human with his selfish needs and greed can sometimes go to any extent to satisfy them. They willingly hunt and kill wild animals for their profit. One of the most ardent features of an Indian elephant is its long off white tusks on either side of its trunk. Ivory is a strong, white material obtained for making jewellery, ornaments, carvings, and many other decorative items. It is regarded as a symbol of wealth and high social status because it comes at the cost of one of the most majestical creatures on the earth. I can’t imagine how cruel a soul must be to desire the death of a child-like creature only to flaunt it as a momentum of their so-called status. Poachers use various methods like shooting, poisoning, and electrocution to hunt in the wild. Sometimes, elephants don’t die immediately. Tusks are deeply rooted incisors with nerve endings. Its removal leads to unbearable pain and suffering. A 2019 statistic by Indian Wildlife control Bearue shows that 429 elephants lost their lives to poaching in the past ten years. Moreover, the wildlife poaching cases just doubled during the lockdown brought another threat to elephants and other endangered species.
It’s high time that the government initiates detailed investigations and imposes strict punishments against anybody committing such inhuman crimes.
If not death, captivity is another form of torture faced by this species. Today, the fate of more than 2,500 endangered elephants is in the hand of private owners who exploit these poor creatures every day for their livelihood. Most of these owners are unlicensed and have no rights whatsoever to take advantage of the humble creature. The majority of these captive elephants – around 1,687 belong to private owners. The remaining are with zoos, circuses, and temples. These elephants are often malnourished and face many forms of violence while training. Behind the colossal cultural significance and flashy acts, the reality is quite different.
We all mostly understand the religious and cultural gravitas of the giant mammal. But we fail to realize its critical role in shaping the ecosystem. Elephants are the architects of the forests. About 40% of tall tree species depend on elephants for seed dispersal. They help in pollination, germination of seeds, and improving the fertility of the soil. Many ecologists believe that forestlands may cease to exist without them.
India accounts for over 50% of the elephant population in the world today. Given their immense importance and ever-rising mortality rates, we need some firm changes to improve the current situation. Firstly, we need some strict policy changes to protect their natural habitat. We can expand the protected area and build corridors so that urban development projects like mining and building dams don’t obstruct their movement. Elephants are migratory hence require a lot of free space for survival. Patrolling should be done more often, not only in the reserves but also around the railway tracks. Authorities should hire more veterinary doctors to provide timely assistance to the wounded elephants to prevent infections and ultimate deaths. We need a well-thought-out plan for their safety which requires strict implementation of forest laws and constant surveys for peaceful co-existence of humans and wildlife. We should encourage the participation of local communities through various seminars to educate them regarding the issues and their solutions. States like West Bengal have set up anti-electrocution cells to monitor illegal electric fences and high tension wires. They also reward the individuals who report sagged wires. Initiatives like this help spread awareness in the community and promote the co-existence of human beings and wildlife. Lastly, be compassionate towards all life forms and stand up for their rights whenever you get a chance to do so. Many small initiatives together can bring about an enormous change.