At a time when there’s a drought of good news in the country, a report from Jharkhand that the construction of an airport has been halted to ensure the jumbo corridor isn’t affected is welcome
At the time of a drought of good news in the country, there comes one to celebrate. The Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) of the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) has halted the construction of an airport at the site of an abandoned World War-II airstrip near Jharkhand’s Dhalbhumgarh town. The reason? It would disrupt an elephant corridor used by 200 pachyderms.
The airport near Dhalbhumgarh was to be the first of 400-of-its-kind, which the Airport Authority of India proposes to build throughout the country. Its halting represents one of the rare occasions when a concern for animals has won out against a grandiose plan for so-called development. The disruption of the corridor would have forced the elephants to look elsewhere for passage, including urban and semi-urban areas, thus taking them to new places and creating new dangers of elephant-human conflict.
The resultant casualties would have had an adverse impact on Jharkhand’s elephants, whose numbers have been declining. From 772 in 2002, the figure came down to 624 in 2007. It increased to 688 in 2012 only to come down to 679 in 2017, according to the elephant census titled, ‘Synchronised elephant population estimation India 2017’, released on August 12 (World Elephant Day), that year.
The causes, related to conditions created by continuing human encroachment upon and activity in elephant habitats, include habitat loss, electrocution by contact with sagging and/or low-hanging high voltage transmission wires, running over by trains, conflicts with humans besides poaching, poisoning and old-age related medical problems. According to a report in May, 2017, 32 elephants had been killed by electrocution and 22 in train accidents in Jharkhand until then.
One hopes that the decision to stop the construction of the airport will not be reversed under pressure and will prove to the precursor of many similar decisions concerning all animals. Elephants, doubtless, need particular attention. They have been listed in Schedule One of the Wildlife Protection Act of India, 1972, which gives them the highest level of protection. Project Elephant was launched in 1992 to protect the Asian elephant (the category to which Indian elephants belong), its habitat and corridors and address the human-elephant conflict. The elephant was declared India’s National Heritage Animal on October 22, 2010.
Yet serious challenges remain. Almost all the factors adversely affecting elephants in Jharkhand apply to the species throughout India. The most important of these is habitat loss, caused principally by continuing human encroachment. This is clear from the Elephant Task Force’s report, Gajah: Securing the Future for Elephants in India, submitted on August 31, 2010. Dwelling on how various elements contribute to habitat loss and the latter’s impact, it states, “Large developmental and infrastructural projects when not planned or located with adequate care are fragmenting habitat[s], while other local pressures degrade them.” It further states, “The physical presence of the roads and railway lines in the habitat creates new habitat edges, alters the hydrological dynamics and creates a barrier to the movement of elephants and other animals, leads to habitat fragmentation and loss, apart from death due to train and vehicular hits.”
It adds, “Rail and an increase in road traffic operates in a synergetic way across several landscapes and causes not only an overall loss and isolation of wildlife habitat but also splits up the landscape in a literal sense. Various developmental activities also come up on either side of the highways and railroads, thereby further fragmenting the habitat and increasing biotic pressures.”
With shrinking habitats, elephants searching for food raid cultivated areas, devouring and destroying crops. Attempts to turn them away constitute an important cause of human-elephant conflict, which is taking a growing number of lives. Replying to a question, Babul Supriyo, Union Minister of State for MoEFFC, told the Lok Sabha on June 28, 2019, that 2,398 people had died since 2014. According to other official statistics, a total of 1,465 people were killed between the years 2013-14 and 2016-17. In turn, people kill 40 to 50 elephants every year, apart from those slain by poachers for the ivory of the tusks.
Habitat loss also forces elephants to move into other areas. They are now seen in States like Manipur, Mizoram, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and the Union Territory of Andaman & Nicobar Islands, where they had not been present earlier. Other factors have also contributed. A major drought in Tamil Nadu had caused herds of elephants to cross over to Andhra Pradesh where they had no presence for over two centuries. The result is an extension of the area witnessing human-elephant conflict.
The impact of habitat loss is compounded by that of elephant corridors, which account for much of the rail and road accidents. According to the report, Gajah: Securing the Future for Elephants in India, train accidents had killed as many as 150 of these behemoths since 1987. According to a Ministry statement in the Rajya Sabha, 49 elephants were killed in railway accidents between 2016 and 2018.
The Elephant Task Force’s report has recommended several measures to protect habitats and prevent elephants from being killed in road and rail accidents. These include the announcement of principles of forest area, railway track and highway management, the grant of mining licences and rules governing the drawing and maintenance of power cables through forest areas.
Besides these, attention has to be paid to nurturing elephant reserves as the basic management unit for their conservation in the country. At present, there are 32 of these across India, covering over 69,000 sq km. The problem is that more than over 40 per cent of these is not under Protected Area or Government forest. Hence, the main emphasis has to be on managing land use patterns in the areas outside the preserves to reduce human-elephant conflict. Also, the havoc bush fires continue to play in Australia reminds us of the need to be ready to cope with such calamities which have been taking a severe toll in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh and may occur in other parts of India thanks to climate change.
All this will require huge expenditure and effort. The Government must not balk from either. Besides, it needs to reach out to organisations like Wildlife SOS, TREE Foundation and Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre, which have been doing outstanding work in rescuing and nurturing elephants.
(Writer: Hiranmay Karlekar; Courtesy: The Pioneer)