ASIAN ELEPHANT
Loss of habitat and competition for resources from a burgeoning human population has sent man and pachyderm on a collision route. A study points to the importance of protected areas in nurturing this flagship species.REUTERS

Two elephants lost their lives when they came in touch with an electric wire, suspected to be put up by villagers in India's northern West Bengal to protect their paddy crop.

Every year, 100-300 humans and 40-50 elephants are killed in human-animal clashes across various parts of India.

Last month, a panel discussion on human animal conflict organised in Puducherry, saw experts point to the death of 106 elephants in nine months in the southern state of Kerala alone, according to a Times of India report.

C P R Environmental Education Centre quoted a study undertaken by Kerala-based Heritage Animal Task Force to note, that while 21 of the elephants were captive animals, the rest were killed due to poaching for ivory, loss of habitat, poor protection and violation of animal rights.

The number of Indian elephants in the wild has been estimated to be around 26,000, down by 50% in less than three decades.

The Asian elephant was declared an endangered species in 1986.

In preventing clashes between humans and elephants, many solutions have been offered including digging of trenches and erection of solar fences around forests, or burning of chillies.

Wildlife-friendly farming, that integrates conservation and farm production by integrating biodiversity and agriculture, has been advocated by some.

Bits of native vegetation are retained amidst the crops grown to create a heterogeneous landscape.

A recent study had looked into the opportunities from wildlife-friendly land use in preventing human-animal conflicts as against the traditional concept of protected areas.

It looked at land-uses including community-managed forests, slash-and-burn shifting cultivation, and monoculture plantations of rubber and cashew.

Scientists from the University of Florida, Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) India Program and other institutions, studied the issue in the context of Asian elephant habitat use to see how well the above served as secondary wildlife habitats.

They found that while the elephants used forests both within protected areas and in community-managed lands, they preferred the protected areas.

The lead author of the paper, Dr Varun R Goswami, who leads WCS India's research and conservation projects on Asian elephants, told IBTimes UK, "While the benefits of extra space and food in 'wildlife-friendly' land uses outweigh the costs for some elephants, at the population level, our results suggest that the costs of human presence outweigh the benefits. Elephants therefore avail of the wildlife-friendly land but restrict frequent and high density use to protected areas free of human presence."

Development projects and land encroachment are only going to further eat into the already diminished habitats available to the Asian elephant today, he warns.

Loss of habitat negatively affects the size of populations, as well as survival and reproduction rates, and in the long-term, this translates to greater chances of extinction of local populations faced with these threats.

The study titled, 'Community-managed forests and wildlife-friendly agriculture play a subsidiary but cannot substitute for protected areas for the endangered Asian elephant' was published in Biological Conservation.

Protected Areas

In a landscape where less than 3% falls under protected areas, it becomes all the more important to ensure that connectivity is not lost amidst fragmented pieces of land.

There have been attempts by organisations to deal with the issue of rehabilitation of people. Recently, World Land Trust announced plans to buy land and create corridors in the Chilkiya-Kota elephant corridor in the state of Uttarakhand to connect Corbett Tiger Reserve and Ramnagar Forest Division along a traditional wildlife route.

Facilitating movement across landscapes dominated by human habitations, agricultural lands, busy roads and railways has been advocated and practised by Wildlife Trust of India as a means of protecting wildlife and minimising conflicts.

It connected the Balphakram and Nokrek National Parks in the Garo Hills in Meghalaya and secured a vital elephant corridor.

Unless these efforts are sustained, the Asian elephant faces an uncertain future caught between the poachers gun and villagers' ire.