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The giant mammal has lately been viewed as a keystone species in the Asian tropical forest that can act as an umbrella or flagship for conserving biodiversity.
Clashes Continue Between Elephant Vs Humans
By Manipadma Jena
BHUBANESWAR, India, Dec 20, 2010 (IPS) - Returning home from work recently, farmer Baidhar Singh was aghast to find his thatched hut in Balasore district, Orissa trampled to the ground. Just a few hundred metres away stood the culprits, huge and grey against the darkening sky: a herd of 65 wild elephants.
That was a few weeks ago. Up till now, Singh and his wife are still calling a polythene-covered lean-to home.
Singh’s experience has become quite common in the eastern Indian state of Orissa in the last five years.
Forest department records show that from 1994 to March 2004, there were 2,888 instances of elephant depredation. In the last six years, however, the number of cases of elephant-caused damage to life and property has nearly doubled, including the death of 402 people and the destruction of nearly 8,900 hectares of crops.
It is not as if Orissa’s elephant population is rapidly increasing. At 1,886, according to the 2010 elephant census, the number of elephants in this state can be said to have just inched up a bit from the 2007 figure of 1,862.
Yet Forest and Environment Department chief conservator Debabrata Swain observes, "Just five to seven years back, movements of wild elephant herds were limited to 18 of Orissa’s 30 districts. Over this short period they have spread to 28 districts." This in turn has led to less-than- pleasant encounters between man and elephant, with the puny human being often at the losing end.
Then again, that’s because man has encroached on the elephant’s habitat. Specifically, experts are pointing to monoculture afforestation and mining as the major reasons why elephant enclaves here in Orissa have become compromised.
Orissa has 10,000 square kilometres or 57 percent of the elephant habitat in central India – one of 10 in the entire country. Forests in the state have 127 species of forest vegetation, of which the elephant feeds on 75.
Elephants need a mix of vegetation in their diet to remain healthy. Experts say that when their nutrient needs are met, elephant herds keep to their habitat. They cite as example the 400 elephants in the well-protected, 2,750-sq km Simlipal tiger reserve, which are rarely seen outside of that area.
But much of Orissa’s degraded forests are now being used for monoculture afforestation by community conservation programmes, meaning a suddenly limited choice of fodder for the elephants.
At the same time, there is the Compensatory Afforestation Management (CAMPA), which now makes compensatory plantations compulsory for forestland users.
Worries Sheo Sharan Srivastava, forests chief conservator of the Orissa government: "Such afforestation could result in monoculture plantations."
As it is, the official says, "While elephants are not going hungry, their diet is increasingly lacking in nutrients due to the loss of mixed vegetation once available in their dense forest habitat, one of the reasons for increased movements and attraction to crops."
One monoculture afforestation favourite is the ‘Shorea robusta’ – known locally as ‘sal’ – whose wood is a popular building material. The species provide elephants shelter as well, and the animals scale back the tree bark to lick the moisture during the summer. Unfortunately, though, ‘sal’ does not provide fodder.
An adult elephant requires 150 kilogrammes of wet weight fodder daily.
Meanwhile, elephants are also being displaced by mining, especially in northern Orissa, which is rich in iron, manganese, and chromite deposits. Open-cast mining in forests there has been growing over the last decade, forcing elephants to migrate.
Interestingly, Keonjhar and Sundargarh districts, which have seen the fastest growth in their local mining industries in recent years, have also the highest number of man-elephant incidents in this state.
Speaking generally, the August 2010 report of the Elephant Task Force of the Federal Ministry of Environment and Forests says that due consideration is simply not given to an industrial project’s ecological and social impact. "In most cases," it adds, "the mandatory Environmental Impact Assessment is done overlooking the impact of the project on migration of animals and the ecological sensitivity of the area."
Researchers call the elephants’ venture outside their habitat to forage for food as "obligate crop raiding". When habitat loss, fragmentation, or degradation severely reduces a habitat’s size or quality within a home range, the affected elephant herd will resort to raiding crops for sustenance, says Orissa government senior researcher Sudhakar Kar.
Lack of resources or nutrients result in starvation, reduced fecundity and calf survival, all of which lead eventually to the extinction of the affected elephant clan, adds Kar.
The federal government has prioritised five of the country’s 10 elephant habitats for a more integrated and comprehensive conservation strategy. Among these is the East-Central habitat, which extends over 17,000 sq km across Orissa, Jharkhand, and southern West Bengal.
Under the Elephant Management Plan, Orissa received a 40 million-rupee (882,000 dollars) allotment in 2010. The state has appointed 51 elephant depredation squads, which include 98 elephant trackers who inform villagers about elephant herds moving in their direction and teach them about the appropriate action to be taken.
Six ‘kunky’ or trained elephants have been employed to drive back herds into the forests. Along with intelligence gathering from villagers regarding "wildlife crimes", elephant-proof barriers are being erected in vulnerable areas.
India has about 29,000 elephants. The giant mammal has lately been viewed as a keystone species in the Asian tropical forest that can act as an umbrella or flagship for conserving biodiversity. (END)
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