Wildlife & Biodiversity

Conservationists slam draft of new government report on elephants

It fails to understand the ecology of elephants, they say

 
By Rajat Ghai
Published: Wednesday 12 August 2020
Conservationists slam draft of new government elephant report. Photo: Flickr

Conservationists and wildlife activists have slammed the draft of a new government report on elephants released on August 12, 2020 (World Elephant Day).

The draft of Best Practices of Human Elephant Conflict Management in India has been written by the Project Elephant Division of the Union Minister of Environment, Forest and Climate Change and the Elephant Cell of the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun. It was made public on the ministry website on August 12.

The very first section of the draft was in the cross hairs of activists due to its terminology. It is titled Retaining Elephants in their natural habitats. This,  a conservationist says, is contrary to government talk of corridors for elephants.

“This report is regressive, it does not take into view the elephant’s ecology, behaviour. It largely focuses on restricting elephant activity through trenches, railway tracks and cement structures that will block access for not just elephants but all other animals as well. The other approach is to create fear in an elephant’s mind as it talks about fire crackers and other methods to scare wild elephants. These stress the animal, make them more aggressive, aggravating conflict and the suffering of both people and wildlife,” Prerna Bindra, noted conservationist and former member of the National Board for Wildlife told Down To Earth.

“What is an elephant? It is a large-bodied, wide-ranging herbivore; it is migrant that you cannot restrict to a few kilometres of ‘protected areas’. I am not speaking from an emotional point of view. Science has established all these facts. When you restrict an animal’s movement, it will find a way to cross anyhow,” she added.

“I understand the suffering of people caused due to conflicts and pressures faced in such situations but by using such band-aid approaches will not resolve the conflict, only aggravate the conflict, accentuating the sufferings of both, people and animals. Securing elephant habitat and corridors, providing it safe passage doesn’t get due weightage in the report. This, from an agency which is the guardian of this species, responsible for its protection, is disappointing. It is unacceptable,” she noted.

Earlier in the day, Bindra tweeted her displeasure at the report:

There are other bloopers in the report that were pointed out by conservationists. For instance, in another chapter titled Restricting Elephants in their natural habitats, the report enumerated various barriers that could be installed including ‘rail fences’.

“Rail fencing, though expensive, is eco-friendly and more effective than solar electric fences, elephant proof trenches, which are partially successful. It has been successful in Karnataka,” the report read.

Responding to this, Ananda Banerjee, another conservationist and journalist, noted how a rail fence had caused the death of a tusker in Karnataka’s Bandipur National Park:

Under the chapter Guiding elephants back to their natural habitat, the report had a section named ‘Repellant methods’.

“Bee sound played has been used as a repellent method in Africa and found to be very effective, especially if it is backed by beehive fences. Playback calls of predators such lion, tiger and leopards may evoke negative responses in elephants,” two lines in the section read.

These two statements, conservationists pointed out to Down To Earth, did not have any scientific basis. The calls of large carnivores such as the ones mentioned in the lines did not have a ‘repelling effect’ on elephants, they said.

As for the bees acting as repellants to elephants, scientists still have not arrived at a consensus on this. While some studies have accepted that honey bees can repel elephants, there are others which have not.

One such recent study was Are Asian elephants afraid of honey bees? Experimental studies in northern Thailand published in the journal Mammalian Biology on May 18 this year.

“The elephants we studied rarely exhibited these behaviors and we conclude, therefore, that they were not disturbed by the presence of the bees. However, while King (2018) studied the reaction of family herds we studied the reaction of individual non-related elephants, a fact that might have infuenced their communicative behaviors,” the scientists noted in their concluding remarks.

“Both the small sample size of this experiment and the fact that it was conducted on captive elephants may limit the generality of the results. However, as the findings of this study are unambiguous, and the low aggression levels exhibited by the bees correspond with the elephants’ unresponsive reaction, we find it unlikely that A mellifera bees could serve as an effective means for deterring Asian elephants,” it concluded.

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