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Gentle Giants Under Grave Threat


Amidst the recent India-China Face off at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh, the Chinese Envoy to India, Sun Weidong on Wednesday (May 27, 2020) said, The realization of Dragon and Elephant dancing together is the only right choice for China and India”. In the above used Metonymy, the Envoy referred to India as “Elephant”. Such is the cultural, religious and historical significance of Elephant for Indians.

Why are Elephants so important?

Elephants hold significant place in ecology and Indian culture. Symbols of these majestic creatures have been depicted in mythology and religion for thousands of years. The elephant is a symbol of strength and wisdom. The great care shown toward their herd, offspring and elders by these gentle giants indicates responsibility, sensitivity and loyalty.

Ecosystem & Elephants

Elephants are referred to as keystone species since they are a critical species within ecosystems and communities as they have tremendous impact on the environment and the biodiversity around them. Elephants eat seeds, transport them around in their guts and then ‘plant’ them in their dung. Elephant dung is a perfect fertilizer and allows seeds to germinate and grow. Elephant Seed dispersal provides opportunities for plants to colonize new areas. Elephant dung is an important food resource for dung beetles and the honey badgers, which eat the dung beetle larvae. So they are also Food providers. As Water providers, Elephants dig holes to access water underground by using their feet, trunks and tusks. These watering holes are a water source for other animals. Elephants also act as habitat modifier. They create gaps in the forests by eating and trampling vegetation. These gaps allow new plants to grow and create pathways for other smaller animals to use. This then promotes biodiversity, providing new niches for organisms to inhabit.

Religion & Elephants

Many religions in India stem from animism, which entails that soul exists in animals and plants. In Hinduism, Lord Ganesha, who is said to be the remover of obstacles and a God of good luck, is depicted in the form of an elephant. Also Indra, the rain God, is usually depicted riding on a white elephant. Elephants also represented royalty and were ridden by kings in processions, transportation and fighting battles. In Buddhism, white elephants signify purity, divinity and a calm mind. A white elephant is said to have played a vital role in Lord Buddha's birth. In Christianity, Elephants are symbolic of temperance, chastity and patience.

The Statistics

India is home to over 50 per cent population of Asian elephants in the world, making it the last strong-hold of the species. They enjoy the highest status in the Wildlife Protection Act of India, 1972, as Schedule-I species. So, we may presume that elephants in India enjoy a high degree of protection. Today, however, this intimate connection of India with its elephants seems to have been severed. They face serious threats like shrinkage of their forest ranges, habitat defragmentation, poaching for Ivory and captivity, and illegal coal mining. This caused a steep and alarming decline in elephant population. Habitats are being destroyed for agriculture, settlements and infrastructure. This and the encroachment on elephant corridors have pushed the human-elephant conflict (HEC) to perilous dimensions. Today only 27,312 wild elephants remain in India. Karnataka has the highest elephant population(6,049), followed by Assam (5,719) and Kerala (3,054). Assam has five Elephant Reserves (ER): Kaziranga-Karbi Anglong ER, Dhansiri-Lungding ER, Chirang-Ripu ER, Sonitpur ER & Dehing-Patkai ER. However, only a small part of these reserves falls in protected areas, leaving the rest exposed to deforestation because of insufficient protection measures. Dehing Patkai, inhabited by a sizeable population of elephants, has recently come under serious threat from the mining project approved by NBWL. The area is already threatened by pollution due to industries and refineries nearby.

Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary

Located in the Dibrugarh and Tinsukia districts of Assam, the Sanctuary is spread over an area of 111.19 sq km and belongs to Assam’s wet tropical evergreen forest category. Dehing is the river that flows through this forest and Patkai is the name hill on the foot of which it lies. It was declared a wildlife sanctuary in 2004 and is a part of Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve.The rainforest, also known as ‘Amazon of the East” is a virgin four-layered rainforest with very rich biodiversity. It is home to 293 bird species, 30 butterfly species, 47 mammal species, and 47 reptile species along with exotic species of orchids and ferns. It also harbors several indigenous Assamese ethnic groups and communities.

The Threat: NBWL approves coal mining in Dihang Patkai elephant reserve

National Board for Wild Life (NBWL) has recently recommended coal mining in a part of Dehing Patkai ER in Assam. The NBWL is an apex body under the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) that reviews all wildlife-related matters and advises the Central Government on framing policies and measures for conservation of wildlife in the country. The NBWL’s Standing Committee considered a proposal for use of 98.59 hectares of land from the Saleki proposed reserve forest land for a coal mining project by North-East Coal Field (NECF), a unit of Coal India Limited. Saleki is a part of the Dehing Patkai ER. It includes the Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary and has a sizable population of elephants. In July 2019, NBWL had formed a committee for assessing the mining area and it had recommended a cautious approach for preserving the basic integrity of this forested hill slope.

Protests by Environmentalists

According to Green activists, the MoEFCC has overturned its own adverse remark on rampant violation of local forest laws. The local wildlife division’s report has pointed out the illegal coal mining in the Tikak open cast pit mining in Saleki. The Assam Forest Department has been lax in protecting the biodiversity of the State. It has allowed all illegal mining of coal, stone, sand, etc., violating all rules and regulations. According to M Ananda Kumar, an elephant biologist, elephant herds have strong fidelity to their range and move around the same area for many years. Such projects will severely adversely affect their movement and demographics.

Need of the Hour…

Today we are battling with a highly infectious and lethal Corona Virus. The biologists opine that the rise in zoonotic diseases (Ebola,SARS,Zika, Corona Virus etc) is directly linked to the reckless and unabashed destruction of forests and biodiversity resulting in environmental conditions that favor particular pathogens. Losing elephants would result in the loss of tens of species and habitats across ecosystems causing a profound, fundamental and irreparable loss to nature.The very survival of India’s biodiversity depends on the survival of its elephants. Time has come to augment our relationship with our forests and elephants. As we celebrate the World Elephant Day on August 12, we should resolve to save our elephants and prevent Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary from becoming a mere geography chapter for our future generation. Along with infrastructural growth and socio-economic development of the Northeast region for boosting economy and connectivity, the State revenues must also be aptly utilized to preserve rich biodiversity of the region. We must control the degradation of our reserve forests to ensure a secure future for the pachyderm. As aptly put by Franklin D. Roosevelt, “A nation that destroys its soils destroys itself. Forests are the lungs of our land, purifying the air and giving fresh strength to our people.”

Compiled by Dr. Somya Misra


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