Can “National Heritage” status save elephants in ever more crowded, faster moving India?
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, October 2010:
(Actual press date November 3.)
DELHI, GUWAHATI– The largest of land animals, but neither
faster than a poacher’s speeding bullet nor more powerful than a
locomotive, elephants are now officially protected with tigers as
“National Heritage Animals of India,” declared Indian environment
and animal welfare minister Jairam Ramesh on October 21, 2010.
Unclear is whether National Heritage status will help elephants any
more than it has helped tigers, who since gaining their National
Heritage designation in 1973 have been poached and illegally poisoned
for preying upon livestock to the verge of extinction across most of
National Herit-age status helped to secure land and funding
for tiger conservation, and for about 30 years the tiger population
was believed to be recovering, but more recent findings have shown a
steep decline that was not previously noticed due to faulty research
and corrupt management in some tiger reserves.
Even as Ramesh spoke to declare “National Heritage status for
elephants, the Lal Kuan/Bareilly Express hit a young elephant in
the Tanda Range Forest of Uttara-khand. Corbett National Park
veterinarian Gautam Bhalla expected the elephant to live, after
providing aid with the help of reportedly the first X-ray machine to
be trucked into the forest on an elephant rescue mission.
A government-appointed 12-member Elephant Task Force
requested that elephants be given National Heritage Animal status on
August 31. Task force member Suparna Ganguly, who heads the
Bangalore animal charity Compassion Unlimited Plus Action,
pronounced herself “absolutely motivated and excited” over the
“This should have been done many years ago,” Ganguly told
Ignatius Pereira of The Hindu. “The precarious condition of
elephants in India warrants more resources,” Ganguly said. “If the
world needs the elephant, India has to take the lead for it.”
“Since the elephant has been declared a National Heritage
Animal,” said People for Animals founder and former animal welfare
minister Maneka Gandhi, “there can no more be private ownership of
elephants. A national property cannot be owned by private
individuals. All temples and private individuals owning elephants
should immediately surrender them to the government. Has the
machinery for that been constituted? The setup for that has to be
evolved, and then there should be rescue centers for elephants,”
Mrs. Gandhi told Pereira.
“There should also be punishment for private individuals if
they happen to keep this National Heritage Animal. Unless there are
enforcement rules, the declaration may not serve its purpose,” Mrs.
Animal Welfare Board of India member A.G. Babu of Kottyam,
Kerala state, pointed out that “Already there is a heritage status
for the elephant, as people see elephants as symbolic of Lord
Ganesha,” the elephant-headed Hindu god.”
Elephants were named a National Heritage Animal almost a year
after the Central Zoo Authority of India ordered that elephants may
no longer be exhibited by zoos and circuses. The order affected
about 140 of the 3,500 captive elephants in India–a fraction of the
number kept by temples and private individuals who lease elephants
for advertising and ceremonial purposes.
“Some elephants have been transferred from Guwahati Zoo,
Lucknow Zoo, and plans are on to send them away from Kolkata Zoo,”
said World Wildlife Fund/India spokesperson Shubhobroto Ghosh, after
the Times of London alleged in July 2010 that no elephants had
actually been taken off exhibit.
But no other elephants have reportedly been taken off exhibit
since then. Lacking facilities to handle elephants retired from
zoos, the Central Zoo Authority on September 12 2010 appeared to
retreat from the 2009 commitment to end elephant exhibition by
appointing a committee to “evaluate if zoo premises are hygienic and
spacious enough for pachyderms to lead a healthy life,” wrote
Nivedta Khandekar of the Hindustan Times. “The committee was formed
by the CZA,” Khandekar continued, “after it received requests from
large zoos across the country to re-consider the zoo regulating
body’s November 2009 circular, which proposed shifting all elephants
in zoos to national parks, sanctuaries and tiger reserves.
Even before Ramesh declared elephants a National Heritage
Animal, temple elephant exhibitors mobilized in opposition to any
move to restrict elephant use.
“We cannot imagine Thrissur Pooram or Arattupuzha Pooram
without elephants,” member of parliament K.B Ganesh Kumar told the
Kerala Festivals Coordination Committee on October 7, 2010. “Some
of the recommendations indicate that the committee cannot understand
the significance of religious ceremonies and festivals in which
captive elephants are traditionally used,” Kumar insisted.
R. Balakrishna Pillai, leader of the Kerala Congress Party,
asked the Kerala government to press federal counterparts to reject
the Elephant Task Force recommendations.
Kerala, where at least 35 temple elephants have run amok in
the past five years, has the most captive elephants of any Indian
state. Assam has the most wild elephants, about 5,500 of the 10,000
remaining in India, and the most elephant/human conflict.
Insurgents & mobs
One day after Ramesh elevated the federal status of
elephants, Assam state introduced fines for poaching elephants,
rhinos, and tigers of five times the amounts presently prescribed by
federal law. New Assam state legislation also funded the creation of
a 1,000-member armed Forest Protection Force–in effect a
counter-insurgency army, since much poaching in northeast India is
done by Maoist rebels to fund their operations.
In July 2009 the chief conservator of forests in adjacent
Jharkand state admitted that field researchers and anti-poaching
personnel did not even dare to enter 13 of the 30 sectors of the
Palamau Tiger Reserve.
In May 2010 an elephant herd that normally migrates between
Assam and Jharkand balked at returning to Maoist-held districts where
they might encounter gunfire. Remaining in Assam as their wild food
supply ran thin, they did extensive crop damage, trampled huts,
and killed a man after villagers tried to force them to leave.
Later in May 2010 the Pune Mirror counted 1,460 animals known
to have been killed by the insurgency, including 639 monkeys, 269
wild birds, 2004 wild boar, 90 elephants, and 71 peacocks. In
December 2009 the Maoists massacred the entire animal population of
the Jhargram Mini Zoo in West Midnapore, apparently to terrorize
local people. In a similar incident, Maoists in August 2010 burned a
truckload of 70 pigs who had just arrived from Haryana state.
But the shooting war is hardly the only threat to elephants
in Assam, who are killing humans in conflicts over food and land use
far more often than humans kill them.
“From 2007 to 2009, Assam has recorded a total of 166 human
deaths and 32 elephant deaths in incidents of human/elephant
conflict,” reported Sushanta Talukdar of The Hindu on July 28,
2010, after elephants fatally trampled a couple with a child in the
Biswanath Reserve Forest. “The figure shows an increasing trend,”
Talukdar noted, with 44 human deaths recorded in 2007, 52 in 2008
and 70 in 2009.
In August 2010 two Nagaon tea plantations asked public
officials to kill three elephants who had destroyed 18 houses and
killed two workers in the preceding 30 days.
Paradoxically, villagers trying to drive an elephant away
from their homes in August discovered the elephant had an iron spear
embedded in his foreleg, which had become infected, and called a
forest department veterinarian to remove it. The elephant was known
to belong to a herd that had killed several people, according to The
An initially similar incident took a turn for the worse on
October 23, 2010 in the Morigaon district of Assam. News media
first reported that a mob beat and speared a baby elephant to death
despite the presence of police and a forest warden, and a
videographer whose footage was broadcast nationally that night. The
baby elephant had strayed into a rice paddy. Assam principal chief
conservator of forests S. Chand told the Assam Tribune a week later,
however, that the incident was an attempted rescue that went awry
when the already injured and frightened elephant moved in a manner
causing further harm to herself.
Because the elephant was believed to be too weak to be fully
anesthetized, Chand said, forest department veterinarians tried to
treat her would using only a local anesthetic.
“But the animal became very restless following application of
the sedative and started to run around nervously,” Chand continued.
The forest officials present engaged the local people to restrict her
movement so that she would not enter a nearby waterhole where
treatment would be impossible. Mob behaviour is never disciplined or
predictable,” Chand continued, “but I can say that killing was
never the intention, as the people were trying to restrain the
elephant’s movement and capture it so that it could be saved.”
Chand’s report was supported by Tulasi Bardoloi, president
of both Tiwa Sahitya Sabha and the Autonomy Demand Struggling Forum,
representing the villagers.
The most notorious alleged elephant killer in Assam state
heretofore has been Indian Railways, whose logos include an elephant
with a lantern, used to warn railway engineers of track hazards. A
speeding freight train on the night of September 22, 2010 killed
seven elephants in the Moraghat forest of West Bengal, raising the
toll in elephant/ train collisions since 1987 to more than 150.
“A speed check on the railway is underway,” the Indian
Express reported on October 7, 2010 from Guwahati, the Assam state
capital. “A speed detection gun was applied on a train in an
elephant corridor yesterday at Deepor Beel in the presence of forest
officials and animal charity officials.” Guwahati wildlife division
chief S.K. Seal Sharma “said the equipment was handy and effective
and his division was ready to procure it. The department has
previously had to rely on the railways for monitoring the speed of
trains,” the Express said.
The use of the speed gun was introduced by Azam Siddiqui, a
TV news camera man who first wrote to ANIMAL PEOPLE about road and
railway threats to elephants in 2004. E-mailed Siddiqui on July 12,
2010, “As you know, we are having a tough time checking Indian
Railways speed violations, which result in frequent unnecessary
painful deaths of wild elephants in elephant corridors. I was
extremely worried last night when I was told that a herd of 30-odd
elephants had descended from the forests in the Deepor Beel wetland
near Guwahati. This is the first time they were there since February
2010, when a female elephant was run over and another cow elephant
had to be euthanized later, after giving birth to a male calf
minutes after the accident while in a paralysed condition. The baby
later died. Every time Indian Railways get away without penalty by
saying that they had maintained the recommended speed.
“Now I have learnt about a wonderful piece of technology with
which I can carry out surprise checks, along with the forest
department and the police, on the speed of the trains,” Siddiqui
wrote, “and I would like your help to obtain it.” Siddiqui had
happened upon a web site describing an inexpensive laser speed gun
routinely used by U.S. law enforcement agencies to check the speed of
automobiles, and by baseball scouts and coaches to measure the
velocity of pitches, but almost unknown in India. Already familiar
with speed guns, ANIMAL PEOPLE helped Siddiqui to collect the
information he needed to apply for the PETA/India grant that funded
the acquisition from the U.S. of the speed gun used in the October
“Eight locations have been identified as vulnerable in
Assam,” said the Indian Express. “Of these, two sites are in
Guwahati, two in Karbi Anglong, and one each in Digboi, Goalpara,
Nagaon, and the gibbon sanctuary in Jorhat.”
Wildlife Trust of India staff member Ashok Kumar told Indian
Express columnist Jay Mazoomdaar that “speeding might not be the real
issue and that no overnight solution should be expected. I learnt
that his WTI team took about six months,” Mazoomdaar wrote,
“through a trial-and-error process, to come up with effective
recommendations that have stopped the killing of elephants on the
railway tracks that cut through Rajaji national park to keep Dehradun
connected to the rest of the country. Since a solution for north
Bengal would naturally have to be site-specific, it could take as
many months to figure out.
“I recently traveled along that track, from Malbazar to
Alipurduar via Rajabhat-khawa,” Mazoomdaar wrote. “It seemed that
the idea of pinpointing a few parts of the corridor [as elephant
crossings] was futile, as elephants could walk across the track
almost anywhere along that stretch. If one wanted to limit speed,
trains would have to ply slow throughout. Traveling from Siliguri to
Alipurduar would take double the time.”
The government of West Bengal has commissioned the Wildlife
Trust of India to find a way to protect elephants without delaying
trains, Mazoomdaar wrote.
Concern has arisen meanwhile over the proposed route of a new
railway that will link points in West Bengal and Assam to Bhutan, an
isolated Himalayan nation which until now has had no railway service.
The nearest station, served by the Indian Northeast Frontier
Railway, is about 12 miles from the Bhutan border. The railway
connections were pledged by Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh
during a May 2008 state visit to Bhutan, and were funded in the 2010
“Not an inch of the proposed line will be constructed on the
land of the Forest Department, but it will pass very close to the
Jaigaon forest area and a vital elephant corridor,” Buxa Tiger
Reserve field director R.P. Saini told The Hindu.