Will elephants survive economic development in India?

9. December 2018

During the 17th century the Asian wild elephant population of about 3 million was evenly distributed across India in about 14 states.  Currently, they are found in only four separate areas across the country, in north, central, south and north eastern India. Their overall numbers have decreased dramatically to about 28,400, with only 1,000 male elephants, mostly due to ivory poaching. (There are also 3,500 captive elephants in India). The disproportionate number of male elephants seriously disrupts required breeding patterns for maintaining existing populations. Aside from poaching, wild elephants face decreasing habitats due to increasing human population and industrial development in and around their reserves and corridors which connect the forests that have been used by elephants for thousands of years. Train tracks and motorways often go right through their habitat, resulting in countless elephant deaths and human-elephant conflicts, dangerous to both humans and elephants. All of this in spite of the immense contribution that elephants make to the environment in which they live. They pull down trees and break up thorny bushes creating grasslands and salt licks which make other animals’ lives easier to survive. They also create water holes by digging in dry water beds. When elephants eat, they create gaps in the vegetation for new plants to grow. They are also responsible for dispersing seeds of many plants, some of which rely completely on elephants for their dispersal. Eradicating elephants will continue to cause unprecedented harm to their habitat.

FILE PHOTO: A herd of elephants is seen in the Gorumara national park, about 100km (62 miles) north of the northeastern Indian city of Siliguri, April 26, 2007. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri/Files

The Indian government has given the highest priority protection via the Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972. But in spite of heavy fines for harming elephants, their numbers continue to decrease. A comprehensive national plan for protecting elephants and people is needed, combined with an educational program to teach people living in proximity to elephants why their survival is essential. Costs for creating and implementing such a plan could be financed by the reduced costs incurred by human-elephant conflict. The know-how for the many aspects for such a project exists, though it is currently dispersed among many NGO’s governments and academics throughout the world. An example of what can be done appeared in the Financial Express on  29-11-2018 in an article written by Devnajana Nay.

Asian elephant, intelligent and self-aware. Photo credit: Visanuwit Thongon / shutterstock

Indian Railways looks to save elephants: As elephants being mowed down by trains has been a major issue for Indian Railways’ Moradabad division, the national transporter is replicating its “highly successful” ‘Plan Bee’ model from the Northeast. This plan, hopes Indian Railways, will help ward off elephants from railway tracks between Haridwar to Dehradun by playing the buzzing sound of bees. Indian Railways has started using loudspeakers to play the sound of bees to drive elephants away from railway tracks when trains are approaching. According to a TOI report, at least four elephants were killed by trains in separate incidents in the state of Uttarakhand this year.

Indian Railways has installed loudspeakers on tracks that pass through Rajaji National Park between Haridwar and Dehradun crossing. As many as 7 loudspeakers have been set up at Raiwala, Motichur and Kansro railway stations. To keep the elephants away from tracks, the buzzing sound is played for about three minutes before the arrival of the train. Additional Divisional Railway Manager, Sharad Srivastava was quoted in the report saying that the buzzing sound of bees is played for a few minutes before the arrival of the train so that any elephant present near the tracks changes its route by sensing the presence of bees. Sanatan Sonkar, Director of Rajaji National Park also claimed that the forest department has deployed 6 bikers on this stretch in order to alert the driver of the train in case an elephant herd is sighted.

A couple of months ago, the Northeast Frontier Railway (NFR) zonal railways installed devices near the railway tracks in Guwahati, Assam that amplifies the buzz of swarming honey bees. As elephants are afraid of bees, especially of being stung on their trunk, they stay away from railway tracks. It was reported that through this device, the sound of bees is audible from a distance of 600 metres. Thus, the animals present within a distance of 600 metres can easily hear the sound, which prevents them from coming near the hazardous tracks and being killed.