In India, the elephant is God. He is Ganesha, the rotund-bellied, elephant-headed beloved god we invoke before we begin any task of significance - be it before we settle into a new home, or start a business, or go on a long voyage. Ganesha is the Lord of Good fortune, the remover of obstacles. In some parts of India, it is believed that after death, the human soul travels outside the body and moves into the souls of elephants.
The elephant is also very well protected, a Schedule 1 species, like the tiger, under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. In fact, the elephant was the first wild creature to be given protection in India in the Arthashastra, the ancient Indian treatise on running an empire and governance; and in contemporary times under the Elephant Preservation Act, 1879. The elephant is also our National Heritage Animal.
It is the law, and the reverence for this animal, its connections with culture that have protected it and ensured that it survives amidst our burgeoning population.
India is the proud custodian of more than 60 percent of the world's Asiatic elephant, the Elephas Maximus.
But there is another side to the story.
We turn on the elephant in revenge, and anger when it enters into human habitation. We abuse it, poison it, beat and bludgeon it, burn it.
I have seen the mob mentality take over when elephants enter human habitation. The animals were merely trying to cross a kuccha road to access a pool of water - but were thwarted by the frenzy of a mob that had surrounded them. The men yelled, screamed, lobbed rocks, threw lathis, burst crackers.
The elephants had done nothing, they had not eaten or destroyed the crops (tea, in this case, which the elephant does not eat) or homes. There were no houses or standing crop that had to be protected.
The men were not reacting in revenge or retaliation. High on adrenaline and alcohol, this was the evening's entertainment. The forest department's elephant conflict mitigation squad - a team of just six or seven - tried to reason and control the crowd, but they were no force against a mob of thousands.
This was not conflict, this was abuse.
The animals were restrained, they had formed a circle - a fortress around their young. Every time the humans unleashed their anger, the matriarch, aided by another female mock charged, and then stepped back.
This continued, through the day…in the blazing heat. It was obvious the animals were exhausted…but they were grace under fire. They could have killed a dozen men, maybe more. But all they did was wait for the cover of the dark, wait for the mob to disperse, and then, quietly, softly slip away.
As a conservationist and journalist writing on issues concerning wildlife, I have been aware of the conflict that occurs across elephant range: villagers in Assam riding a baby elephant that was accidentally left behind when her herd was chased away, then beating her to death as the police and media looked on. In another, an elephant reportedly trampled a man after it was attacked and stoned by a mob (the elephant died too).
And so on.
But what shook me the most was an incident shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the US Twin Towers. It was the image of an elephant, lying lifeless in a pool of its own blood in a field in Assam, and written on the carcass was 'Dhan Chor Bin Laden'—Paddy Thief (Osama) Bin Laden.
When had God morphed into a thief and a terrorist?
There are other recent manifestations of this - people clicking selfies as they hurl abuses and stones at elephants, standing and jumping on a slain elephant - as its bloated body lay in the field.
One can empathise with the angst and the anger of the villagers who lose their harvests and livelihood when elephants trample their fields. The human tragedy is monumental.
Crop damages are crippling. When a farmer who has borrowed heavily to sow his crop loses it overnight to a herd of elephants, he cannot be expected to feel kindly towards the animals. And how does one even begin to understand the aching tragedy of the loss of a child or a young mother, or family's sole earning member by panicked pachyderms?
But what is the elephant to do, what does it eat, where does it go with its forests destroyed and reduced to broken slivers? The 'Bin Laden' photograph was from Sonitpur in Assam, which has the highest rate of deforestation in the country. The elephant reserves in Sonitpur–Kameng were massively encroached post 1990s. By the year 2002, about half of the region's prime elephant habitat was lost, leading to a surge in human-elephant conflict. Between 1991 and 2003, 93 people were killed by wild elephants in the Kameng–Sonitpur area. During the same time frame, 52 elephants were found dead, 25 due to poisoning.
The story in Odisha is similar, and perhaps even more pronounced given that it is deeply associated with rich elephant culture. It was part of the ancient Kalinga Empire (dating back to about 200 BC) famous for its magnificent tuskers who were coveted for wars. The Kalinga rulers were called 'Gajapati', Lord of the Elephants: they commanded huge elephant cavalries earning a formidable reputation.
The region has now become a battlefield between people and elephants. From 2005 to 2015, 685 elephants lost their lives, while 660 people were killed in human-elephant conflict in Odisha.
Loss of forest cover directly causes and increases conflict. In North Bengal, elephants have lost nearly 70 percent of their original habitat, which is now tea estates, agricultural fields, expanding cities and villages, defence infrastructure, hydroelectric projects, highways, rail tracks, tourist resorts etc. Pushed into human habitation, elephants kill about 50 people each year in the two districts of Jalpaiguri and Darjeeling. Elephants have been killed too; many bear scars, burns from lighted mashals, their bodies limp and pock-marked with bullets. It wounds the spirit as well. Calves born in, and living with conflict are not unlike children raised in war zones. Anxious, traumatized; and having never known peace, they are more prone to get into conflict. Indeed, scientists say that constant stress is also a potential trigger for conflict. Driving elephants with searchlights, crackers or guns only makes them more aggressive. Elephants are being poached for their ivory, poisoned, electrocuted, crushed by trains. They are watching their kin being slaughtered. In an article published in Nature, Bradshaw et al say that 'Wild elephants are displaying symptoms associated with human Post Trauma Stress Disorder - depression, unpredictable asocial behaviour, and hyper-aggression.'
At the root of the conflict are habitat loss and fragmentation. Even though the elephant is protected in India the land the elephant inhabits is not protected: elephant reserves have no legal sanctity, with barely a third of it covered under the Protected Area network. Elephant corridors - ancient migration paths that animals use to traverse from one forest to another - are unprotected as well, and rapidly being blocked by mines, dams, roads, railways, canals, real estate and other construction.
As per official estimates, India is home to about 30,000 elephants, and it is claimed that the population has been steadily rising. But an increase in population seems doubtful with the multiple threats the creature faces, from revenge killings and poaching for ivory to railway accidents and ever-shrinking, splintered habitat.
Railway lines have been particularly destructive. Of the 88 identified elephant corridors, 61 have highways and railways tracks cutting across as per the environment ministry appointed Elephant Task Force report -Gajah. The toll is enormous. Three elephants - two adults and a calf were killed after a speeding train knocked them down in West Bengal's Jhargram district on 7 August 2018.
Earlier in April, four elephants were hit by a train in Odisha's Ganjam district, and in December 2017 five died while crossing a railway track in Assam. One of the worst accidents was in North Bengal in September 2010, when seven elephants were mowed down by a speeding train, as the herd tried to save a calf that was stuck in the line. This was on the Sevoke-Rangpo 'killer' track (in North Bengal) where no less than 50 elephants have met their deaths in the decade between 2004-15. Yet it was cleared for expansion by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change - meaning more trains, greater speeds, and potentially more fatal accidents.
The elephants may not be facing any immediate extinction crisis, but they are threatened by attrition, with their habitat under assault.
India is failing its God…
The way forward
The best gift we can give Ganesha on World Elephant Day, is to grant the elephant the basic right of passage - we must protect their habitats and corridors. Any new development must be regulated from the wildlife perspective, and some critical habitats must be 'no-go'. For existing tracks, it's important to identify vulnerable stretches and have site-specific strategies to minimise fatal accidents.
In matters concerning the conflict, one acute problem is the woefully inadequate staff, equipment, infrastructure and lack of training of the forest department to deal with a situation of human-wildlife conflict. For instance, conflict mitigation squads have skeletal staff. For instance in Athgarh in Odisha, a staff of four covers the entire Athgarh range (about 200 sq kms) in North Bengal (Mal Bazar), a staff of six covers about 200 sq km, and manage with only one vehicle in eight months of the year. Both places have severely fragmented forests and hence see immense elephant movement.
The main issue that ignites, and aggravates, such human-elephant conflict is unmanageable crowds and mobs. Governments must also facilitate the use of police and other enforcement personnel such as Home Guards, police, SSB etc to manage crowd control/ mob control during situations of conflict.
We also need to understand elephants better. People need to be made aware of the animal's basic behaviour in relation to the precautionary measures they need to take to avoid confrontation and for their safety. The way conflict is handled must change. When you have elephants in your backyard - stay calm. Shouting, chasing and crowding the animal, bursting crackers will further panic the already traumatized pachyderms who may lash out in self-defence.
I will always remember what the 'elephant keepers - the members of the Elephant Mitigation Squad at Athgarh told me when we discussed the matter: 'It is not the elephants who are the problem. It's us. Elephants are wise, intelligent, peaceable beings with a heart and a conscience. We have wreaked havoc in their lives, we have killed their families, destroyed their society. So they are pushed into being something they are not: aggressive, erratic, belligerent. Whatever "solution" we think of, has to keep the elephant in mind, and should not stress them further. Only then there is hope.'
(Though a city-dweller, the writer Prerna Singh Bindra is at home in the forests she is committed to protect. Her book, The Vanishing: India's Wildlife Crisis, was released in June 2017. A small part of this column was earlier published in FountainInk as "The Elephant Men of Odisha' in April 2016.)