My first wild elephant sighting was way back in 2007 in Corbett Tiger Reserve, I was inside the reserve working on a research project and suddenly we heard a loud trumpeting just outside our rest house. It was two big bull Elephants fighting with each other and the whole forest was echoing with their loud trumpets. I never had that big jungle drama in front of my eyes, we were watching them from distance. They were aware of our presence and while doing their business they have not tried to hurt us. This was because they are gentle creatures and from that particular day, I am a big fan of them. Elephants have many qualities which make them so special in the animal world. But still, these Gentle giants are in the endangered category due to several factors, and saving them in the wild is a big challenge for protected area managers, conservationists, and administration. The government of India has started a project to monitor and provide assistance for the conservation of Asian Elephants.
About Asian Elephants
Elephants are the largest land mammals and are classified as Megaherbivores because of their distinctly massive body, long trunks, large ears, and pair of long tusks. There are three extant species of Elephant; African Savanna Elephant, African forest Elephant, and Asian Elephant. Asian Elephants are the only living species of the Genus Elephas. They are smaller in size than their African cousin and only bull elephants have tusks unlike Africans, where both sexes have tusks. They are distributed in Indian Subcontinent and Southeast Asian Countries.
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The ecology of Asian Elephants
Elephants have a large home range and travel many kilometers in search of fodder and water. Being large mammal, their food and water requirement is also big which only can be supported by a very productive tropical forest. In a forest ecosystem, they play a crucial functional role in seed dispersal, nutrient cycling, biomass removal, and assisted regeneration of vegetation. For their major role in the modification and balancing of ecosystems, they are referred to as ecosystem engineers. Considering their ecological importance, they are also considered the keystone species for biodiversity conservation. They are also identified as Umbrella Species, under whose ambit other species of the ecological community and their habitat gets protection. Furthermore, because of their religious and cultural significance, they are also considered the flagship species. Considering the remarkable quality of a single species acting as keystone, umbrella, and flagship species, the Indian government has declared Asian Elephants as a National Heritage Animal.
Distribution of Asian Elephants
The Asian elephants were once distributed from Tigris-Euphrates in the west to the Yangtze River basin in the east. The present distribution of elephants is reduced to 5% to 7% of their original distribution. They have suffered a major range contraction and become locally extinct from many of their previous range countries. Though their range has declined in India too still we harbour the biggest population of these giants. Among 13 range countries in Asia, India holds more than 60 % of the Elephant population. This is only possible because of public support, political will, and strict laws. The conservation of elephants in India is a success despite of high demand for land and the large population. A large network of the protected area created to protect the dwindling wildlife helped us to save many species from the brink of extinction.
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The threat to Asian Elephants
The major threat to the Elephant population in most of its range is poaching, habitat destruction and fragmentation, and man-animal conflict. During the 1970s to 1990s, ivory poaching was a big challenge. In south Indian forests, bull elephants were targeted by poachers because only bulls have tusks and this selective killing has skewed the sex ratio very badly. In Periyar Tiger Reserve during the 90s the sex ratio of males and females becomes 1:100, an alarming situation for the survival of species. Conflict cases were also on the rise during that period which not only threatened local livelihood but also retaliatory killing. Linear intrusions like roads, railway lines, and electric lines have already played their role in killing these pachyderms.
The Inception of Asian Elephants
Considering the fact that the elephant population in India is under the threat of poaching, man-animal conflict, habitat destruction, and fragmentation, it was felt that there is a need for governing body to monitor and provide the necessary support to the elephant conservation and welfare in India in coordination with the state forest department. The Project Elephant in India was officially launched by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India in the year 1992 to provide technical and financial assistance to Elephant conservation and welfare in India with the objective that includes
- Protecting the Elephant their habitats and corridors
- Addressing Human-Animal Conflict
- The welfare of Captive Elephant.
The project elephant works under the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate change (MOEF & CC), and an officer of Indian Forests Services at the rank of Inspector General oversee as the director. Respective state governments get financial and technical assistance as and when required and implement the same in the field. Transboundary issues with Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and Myanmar are dealt with directly by the Project Elephant division. Project Elephant also constitutes a steering committee which is chaired by the hon’ble minister, MOEF &CC. The committee also includes the Chief Wildlife Warden of the states, scientists, and representatives of non-government bodies as expert members. Recently another committee CPEMC (Central Project Elephant Management Committee) was formed and in addition to all the project elephants also work closely with the state forest department, scientific institutions like the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), Central Zoo Authority (CZA), and National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA).
They also have formed a committee “The captive Elephant Health Care and Welfare Committee (CEHWC)” for the welfare of captive elephants with the objective of improvement of the welfare and health conditions of the captive elephants in the country.
Elephant Reserves in India
The management unit for the project elephant is Elephant Reserve, and because the elephants need a large range, this management unit is large and based on the concept of the “Landscape Approach”. Only 40% of protected areas fall within the Elephant Reserve. Unlike Tiger Reserves which falls under the jurisdiction of the Forest Department, the Elephant Reserve management have to coordinate with different ministries, department, and the local community.
Elephant reserves are spread over 14 states, and till now 31 reserves are notified, largest among them is Singhbhum in Jharkhand (13440 Km²) and the smallest is Singphan in Nagaland (23.5 km².).
List of Elephant Reserves in India:
|S. NO.||Elephant Reserve||State||Area (km²)||P.A. in ER (km²)|
|3||South Arunachal||Arunachal Pradesh||1957||378.1|
|28||Uttar Pradesh||Uttar Pradesh||744||–|
|30||Eastern Dooars||West Bengal||977.5||484|