Updated: Jul 29, 2021
The greatest threat to Asian elephants is the loss of natural habitat! Asian elephant numbers have dropped by at least 50% over the past three generations, and they continue to decline at an alarming rate.
At the turn of the century, more than 100,000 Asian elephants existed. However today, only 40,000-50,000 remain in the wild. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists Asian elephants as endangered (IUCN, 2017), with nearly 55% of them in India.
What Are the Threats to Elephant Habitats?
India's topography is as diverse as its languages & cultures. It is home to several large land mammals, including the Indian elephant, a subspecies of the Asian elephant. Their numbers, estimated at 27,785 to 31,368 in India - are dwindling rapidly.
These elephants once roamed across most of Asia, but their range has shrunk to about five percent of the original landscape. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that what remains is highly fragmented.
But what has led to the fragmentation of forest areas? The answer, while complex in its own way, can be summed up in three words: human population explosion. According to Popularnu, India’s population stands at 1.39 billion today.
As one of the two most densely populated countries on the planet, India’s need to sustain its human population comes at a direct cost to nature. This means, forests are being cleared out rapidly for roads, railways, mining, agriculture and other infrastructure development. Consequently, forests are being chopped up into bits, leading to fragmentation of elephant habitat. It’s worth noting that while fragmentation can be caused by natural processes such as fires, floods, and volcanic activity, it is human activities that are responsible for the magnitude of devastation.
A Glimpse into the Human-Elephant Conflict in India
Pushed out of their natural habitat, elephants are left stranded in forest patches which were once a contiguous and vast forestland. The consequences of land fragmentation are dire for both humans & elephants. As elephants venture out into the farmlands & start feeding on crops to merely survive, farmers living on the forest fringes often resort to cruel methods to protect their croplands.
Most of these farmers are poor & barely make enough to feed their families. With daily wages averaging less than $3 a day, the loss of agricultural produce can mean the difference between life and death for farmers. On the other hand, the voiceless animals that are pushed out of their homes due to human activity are blamed & face cruel retaliations such as deliberate poisoning & electrocution.
According to The Hindu, about 461 elephants were electrocuted in India between 2009 & 2017. That’s as many as 50 elephant deaths each year. In Odisha state alone, between January and July of this year, 45 elephants have already been killed, at least half a dozen by electrocution.
The Complexity of Human-Elephant Conflict
With the majority of elephant habitats close to human settlement, India has become the epicenter of human-elephant conflict, resulting in 500 human deaths each year, according to CNN.
“One of the biggest challenges in India is the fact that we have less than 5% of land set aside for wildlife, and there are millions of people who live adjacent to our protected areas or inside,” Krithi Karanth, chief conservation scientist and executive director of the Centre for Wildlife Studies told CNN. The situation is dire in the states of West Bengal & Odisha. In the last five years, as many as 528 people have died and 443 have sustained injuries in human-elephant conflicts in Odisha alone.
Despite being listed as an endangered species, not enough is being done to protect the last remaining elephants in India. Only 22 percent of elephant habitats are protected. This means 78 percent of the landmass has been invaded by humans, leaving the vulnerable elephants at a huge disadvantage, forced to compete for the land that once was theirs.
The methods that villagers implement to protect their crops are illegal and brutal. Short-term solutions like electrical fencing, poisoning and poaching are not only ineffective, but also fail to address the root causes of the problem. It is imperative that a national policy be rolled out with adequate budget to resolve this ongoing issue. Long-term planning, such as consolidating elephant habitat and formulating land-use, will truly foster a peaceful coexistence.
But truth be told, it's humans who need to modify their behavior to achieve long-term results. Ignorance and a dearth of information regarding the value of protecting elephants are just two of the key factors causing the unprecedented tragedies in India. Awareness and education are critical in changing attitudes and mindset that will spur conscious and nonviolent actions.
How Can We Contribute to Elephant Conservation
As the ones who break it, we must be the ones to fix it.
Volunteering with non-profit organizations that work for Asian Elephant protection in India is the most logical step. However, projects such as mitigating human-elephant conflict require funding, and monetary donations are crucial. You ideally want to choose non-profits that have local partners and work with local communities.
Empowering communities with basic tools such as flashlights to scare elephants away is a step in the right direction. However, without stringent penalties against perpetrators, the overall management of human behavior is impossible. Collaborating with governmental & non-governmental bodies to enact legal protections for elephants is also vitally important.
Our non-profit, Voice for Asian Elephants Society (VFAES) does all of the above. We are getting ready to launch a program to feed elephants in Odisha to prevent them from being killed by trucks on major highways, as they cross these treacherous paths in search of food .