Advantages of thick skin

Elephants are running riot in Assam. Project Elephant is a failure. Bureaucracy is indifferent

Published: Saturday 31 January 1998

the indefinite hunger strike of villagers around Kaziranga, Assam, against the growing number of attacks on their fields and dwellings by elephants is another example of the people's wrath at being made scapegoats in the name of conservation. An apathetic government and blinker-wearing wildlife managers are letting things run out of hand even as they grope for answers. At the same time, conservationists are "making hay" by urging international wildlife activists and organisations to "pressurise the Indian government" to take stronger steps to preserve the elephant by providing foresters with guns and ammunition, jeeps, surveillance equipment, as well as setting up anti-poaching squads.

In this mad rush to save the elephant, the immediate problems -- villagers losing their seasonal crops over and over again to rampaging elephants, people living in the vicinity being killed by the beasts, the traditionally-revered elephant now being seen as the local Gabbar Singh, the archetypal Indian villain -- are brushed aside. Fields are destroyed, crops feasted upon, people killed, and there is no law or strategy to stop the elephant.

With very few answers being provided by local park officials, district authorities have been forced to seek the permission of the Union ministry of environment and forests to capture 200 grown elephants this year. Local politicians are incensed by the problems and want immediate answers. The ministry, however, has not responded. It has preferred to sit on the fence, neither wanting to spend its "scarce resources" in field action nor being concerned about the plight of the people.

How long can Project Elephant talk in the air about "elephant management" when in reality there is "no management" in these areas? The elephant problem in India is extremely complex, and solutions have to be worked out at different levels. Project Elephant, initiated in 1991-92, was to do exactly that; assist states with free-ranging populations of wild elephants to manage the pachyderms through additional finance and scientific assistance. The project also promised to pay compensation for human-animal conflicts and to capture and relocate rogue elephants in West Bengal and Assam.

The project is obviously foundering. At the protected area level, wildlife laws are convoluted and forest officials are anti-people. Villagers never get compensation for loss of life or property. According to reports, about 70 people were killed by wild elephants in 1997 in Assam. Statistics show that Orissa and West Bengal are not far behind.

Local park managers have failed to come up with immediate answers to pressing problems. How to prevent elephants from wandering into nearby fields, or even migrating to distant areas? Trenches have not worked, electric wires are too expensive. Most importantly, the incentives provided by the local authorities to kill or capture straying elephants are so low that there are no takers for the task.

And what about the habitat restoration and creation of elephant corridors that wildlife scientists and Project Elephant are supposedly offering as solutions? Will it be done by throwing more people out from protected areas, wasting precious resources to pay for compensation and rehabilitation packages that have a history of being carried out pathetically? Or will it be done by spending more resources in enforcing draconian protection laws even in the reserved, protected and open forests that dot the proposed corridors, thereby closing the few remaining forest areas on which many people depend for eking out a living? All this is bound to backfire.

The same goals can be achieved with people's involvement. Forest dwellers and villagers can become partners in the restoration of degraded areas in elephant habitats, in suggesting the blend of species that would meet the requirements of elephants and the people. Grazing pressures can be better managed under such partnerships. This will be far more effective and less expensive.

Bolder steps are required to conserve wild elephants. Some African countries have shown the way by allowing village councils to "own and sustainably use" wild elephant populations in their areas. With elephants becoming the source of income through trophy hunting and tourism, Zimbabwean villagers are fast becoming good wildlife managers. Human-elephant conflicts have declined and there has been an increase in elephant populations. Surely, India can learn from these lessons.

Will elephant conservation in India mean massive expenditure? The government says it will, but that it is starved for funds. State governments already see wild elephants as a liability. "If you want to save elephants, save them in Delhi," is the message that comes through. It is time that India starts finding ways to generate more resources. Supporting a total ban on international trade in ivory does not help. India will be throttling African efforts to independently generate resources. We need to increase the tax liability of the wildlife tourism industry, which is only exploiting wildlife to fill its coffers without sharing it with people. The possibility of allowing strictly-regulated trade in ivory from domestic elephants for investment in conservation efforts should be explored. Arm twisting, bullying and protectionism will not help. The people can work out strategies, if the "right incentives" are given. Will our government wake up from its slumber and decide to take quick steps -- for once and in the right direction?

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