Addressing the elephant in the room-THE HINDU-08-06-2020


The news last week about a pregnant elephant having her mouth blown caused outrage on social media. It’s impossible not to empathise with the pain of the elephant, which stood impassively in a river and died a slow death. While people are demonising the farmer responsible for the incident, it is important to note that the elephant was an unintended target.

Problems with the narrative:

With the absence of large predators outside forests and the huge availability of easily accessible food crops, deer, monkeys, boar and other species inevitably fill this space. India does not allow rural people to hunt animals, but neither does the government cull animals regularly despite their numbers shooting up.

While the government has the provision to declare overabundant animals “vermin”, and cull them under the Wildlife Protection Act, it very rarely does this. Vocal urban wildlife activist groups generally create a social media storm when such decisions are taken and challenge the order in court. These groups have no empathy for the farmers who struggle to make their ends meet while growing food for all of us. Kerala had declared boar “vermin”, but very few have been killed over the years.

Given the widespread destruction of crop by these animals, farmers urgently need a safety net. Compensation schemes are one part of the solution, but in India this is always only a fraction of the market value of the crop, which is already precariously low. Poor farmers spend a lot of time navigating bureaucratic processes to get it. The start of the monsoon is when animals move into human habitation more, partly on account of jackfruit and other crops/fruits.

Incidents like this take place as it is notoriously hard to identify the culprits, since the event occurs much before the injured elephants are found.

This is untenable to most people, since conservation in India is arguably mixed up with animal rights. If they are causing the death of much more threatened species like elephants, that gives us all the more reason to control their numbers.

The modalities of this have to be worked out carefully to ensure there is no over-hunting and local extinction in some areas that have governance or enforcement problems. But the inability to enforce rules should not be used as an excuse for not taking decisive action about the expanding boar population.

The modern conservation movement aims to separate human and wildlife spaces. This is arguably at odds with the reality in India, where the majority of animal range is outside protected areas. For elephants only about 25% of their range is within protected areas. One study in central India by Majgaonkar and others found that only 2.6% of the range of leopards, hyenas and wolves in central India was within protected areas.

So animals and people, particularly elephants, have always been interacting with each other.

The way forward:

At a policy level, a good starting point would be to reorient the forest department to do away with the wildlife-territorial dichotomy of management that currently exists, especially since nobody has managed to inform animals that they are only allowed to stay in wildlife divisions. Solutions vary based on the context, the kinds of crops grown, density of people, socioeconomic status, etc.

Farmers should be empowered and subsidised to better protect their land rather than wait for compensation or be forced to resort to these extreme, illegal measures out of desperation. India has done well in saving nature given its high population density. Even a coal mine inside an elephant reserve in Assam was recently cleared.

The government is easing up environmental clearances and opening up forests for destruction to boost a post-COVID economy.

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