Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Let the elephants dance in joy

Our National Heritage Animal is a victim of abuse and indifference. We need to do more to protect them and provide them a life of dignity. For that, the Government must implement the various recommendations of the Elephant Task Force 
The idea of the elephant”, Arthur Schopenhauer said, “is imperishable”. It is difficult not to concur. These behemoths have fascinated humans throughout the ages. The Arthashastra calls for the protection of not just individual elephants but also important elephant forests it lists. In Buddhism, elephants symbolise the calm majesty of one who is on the path to nirvana. Yet, in India in the 21st century, they suffer gross abuse in captivity and indifference and hostility in the wild.

The hostility stems from growing incidence of man-animal conflict following human encroachment into animal habitats. The constructions of roads and railway lines, the opening of mines, and the drawing of power cables through, forests and across elephant paths, reflect indifference. According to the report of the Elephant Task Force, appointed by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests and submitted on August 31, last year, “The physical presence of the roads and railway lines in the habitat creates new habitat edges, alters the hydrological dynamics and create a barrier to the movement of elephants and other animals, leads to habitat fragmentation and loss, apart from death due to train and vehicular hits.”

It adds, “Rail and an increase in road traffic operates in a synergetic way across several landscapes and causes not only an overall loss and isolation of wildlife habitat, but also splits up the landscape in a literal sense. Various developmental activities also come up on either side of the highways and railroads, thereby further fragmenting the habitat and increasing biotic pressures.”

Not surprisingly, train accidents have taken a heavy toll. According to the Elephant Task Force’s report, these have killed as many as 150 elephants since 1987. The report further shows the States’ share of these deaths in terms of percentages, which was 36 in the case of Assam and 26, 14 and 10 in the cases of West Bengal, Uttarakhand and Jharkhand respectively.  Tamil Nadu accounted for six per cent, Uttar Pradesh and Kerala three each, and Odisha two.

Measures taken jointly by forest departments and animal welfare organisations in some States to avert such deaths include patrolling, electric fencing, installation of signage and hoardings, levelling of steep embankments, creation of awareness among train drivers and other railway staff, the clearing of vegetation at blind corners to improve visibility for train drivers and so on. There have been some instances of success, such as in Rajaji National Park in Uttarakhand where no elephant has died in train accidents since 2002.  Much, however, needs to be done: Trains continue to kill.

The Elephant Task Force’s report recommends several measures to prevent road and rail accidents. Besides site-specific short and long-term mitigation measures, these include the announcement of the principles of forest area, railway track and highway management, the grant of mining licenses and rules governing the drawing and maintenance of power cables through forest areas.

These are comprehensive but will require time and funds. Meanwhile, the railways themselves can implement some measures relatively soon. Ms Amruta Ubale, Indian representative of Animal Equality, an animal rights organisation in Britain, has outlined a number of steps identified by the organisation in letters to the Union Ministers for Railways and Environment and Forests respectively. These include the installation in trains of radar sensors to detect animals in front and on tracks, determine the train’s distance from these, and can also act as auto-brakes for preventing collisions.

The suggestions also include equipping trains with automatic speed governors which would be activated once trains enter forests where the maximum speed should be 20-25 kmph on even tracks and 40-45 kmph on steep tracts, and installing in them scintillating head lamps with halogen/LED bulbs which would also help illuminate much longer stretches of tracks. Animal Equality has also recommended fitting trains with water cannons to remove animals blocking railway tracks and refusing to budge.

These measures will help, as will regular inspection and repair of power lines running through forests to prevent electrocution of elephants. While implementation of all recommendations of the Elephant Task Force including those against poaching for ivory, will require time, the one for creating a National Elephant Conservation Authority on the lines of the National Tiger Conservation Authority, should be implemented immediately to give an effective centralised direction to the entire process.

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