The Asian Elephant Saga

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. 31 No. 4, April 2011

Yesterday, today and tomorrow

By Ajay Desai

The elephant article I wrote – what seems a generation ago (Sanctuary, September/October 1990) began with these lines: “The soft golden light of the setting sun lit the elephant and its mahout a few minutes before night plunged them into darkness. That instant in time seemed to sum up the story of the elephant and its long association with man. A glorious association, it begins with the Indus Valley civilisation (3000 B.C.).”

I would still use the first two lines, but would drop the ‘glorious’ reference, to highlight the truth that both elephants and our past glorious association with them have been plunged into darkness. Back then, I took you all on a journey to the North, Northeast, Central and South India, where my friends, colleagues and I worked. That journey highlighted the key elephant issues of the day and was tinged with great hope spurred by the newly-initiated Project Elephant.

Habitat Loss

“The forests of the Garo Hills (in Meghalaya), with some 2,300+ elephants (of the total estimated 2,700+ elephants in Meghalaya) were almost entirely exposed to slash and burn (jhum) cultivation… the Forest Department in Meghalaya controls only three per cent of the land… the bulk of the forest is under tribal, community and District Council control… Even with my ‘impractical’ ideas of joining and expanding some of these Protected Areas (PAs), I could not cover more than 600 to 700 elephants… impractical because what I did was to draw lines on the map without looking at the financial, social and political implications. Even if this were possible, we would still have over 1,500 elephants wandering in unprotected areas in regular conflict with people! Obviously, hard decisions will have to be taken. Perhaps, some elephants in areas beyond redemption will have to be removed… One way or the other, decisions will have to be made. The question is when?”

A recent visit to the same area showed shocking changes. Jhum cultivation was being replaced by permanent crops like areca nut, cashew, coconut, banana, etc. and human-elephant conflict (HEC), instead of increasing significantly due to these changes, was relatively low. People still complained about conflict, and researchers who had moved in during the last few years felt that it was high (not having seen the past HEC). So why was there reduced conflict? Only because the number of elephants has plummeted. For the last 20 years no effective conservation steps were taken, while people on the other hand have taken the law into their own hands, retaliatory killing and poaching causing populations to drop to roughly half the 1980s estimate (fewer than 1,500 elephants surviving today).

About the Northeast, I mentioned in Sanctuary 20 years ago that: “…Only Assam has adequate protected elephant numbers.” That, too, has changed and more large tracts of forests have been fragmented. Not surprisingly, HEC incidents in Assam have risen dramatically. In Arunachal Pradesh, the other northeastern elephant stronghold, poaching has significantly depleted the elephant population. The situation is bleak for all the predictable reasons – habitat loss and fragmentation, HEC, retaliatory killings and poaching.

I spoke of habitat degradation based on a study by the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS). The key problem was of elephants moving out of their traditional range and causing severe HEC. “This factor was the reason for Andhra Pradesh’s elephant problem and recently a similar situation was seen along the Bihar-Madhya Pradesh border as well. This is a warning of things to come from all parts of unprotected elephant ranges, if the degradation process is not halted. These areas need special management taking into account the socio-economic needs of the local people.” We ignored this problem for the past 20 years and today we find elephants wandering all over, into new areas in Maharashtra, Goa, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, West Bengal, Chhattisgarh, Orissa, etc. and causing severe HEC. Even Protected Areas (PAs) face degradation due to anthropogenic pressures, weeds, and local-overabundance of elephants and are facing similar problems.

An elephant calf, named LaLa, nudges the dead body of her mother after she was shot by poachers in Laos. The fatally injured elephant cow managed to drag herself from Laos into the Meng La sub Reserve in Xishuangbanna Nature Reserve, China and the calf followed. LaLa stood by her mother’s lifeless body for hours, rubbing against her and trying to lift her with her trunk. Photo: IFAWZ.

Conservation & Development

Back in the 1980s, mining was a problem and I had mentioned it because I had seen its adverse impact in Orissa and Bihar. Today it has become one of the most significant threats for all wildlife. Mining has displaced elephants from their traditional range in central India resulting in HEC that has caused over a 100 human deaths. What price the elephants pay is hardly considered as we do not even care about the poor who are so badly affected. Our Cabinet is actually resisting the suggestion that 30 per cent of our remaining forests should be declared as ‘No-Go’ areas for mining! That is just six per cent of the land area – we have 94 per cent of the country to defile at the altar of economic growth, is that not enough? And what exactly have we achieved with this development and growth? Over 300 million people living below the poverty line? Countless billions of dollars stashed in foreign accounts? Billions of dollars of public funds and resources being pilfered by the polity, bureaucracy and industrialists/businessmen, annually? This is the reason for India’s development problems, not conservation. Japan has over 60 per cent forest cover and most of the developed countries have over 30 per cent forest cover – we barely have 20 per cent forest cover. Most of our poorer and smaller neighbours in Asia have 10 per cent or more of their land dedicated to PAs, some even greater than 20 per cent, we on the other hand have set aside less than five per cent as PAs. So where exactly is there a forest or conservation-related problem for development in India?

Science and Pragmatism in Conservation

Yet another study by the BNHS focussed on small pockets of populations like those in the Dalma Wildlife Sanctuary and the Chandaka Wildlife Sanctuary. Both PAs were less than 200 sq. km., having fewer than 100 elephants. Back in the 1980s both these areas were the source of severe HEC. Knowing that elephants have large home ranges well in excess of 200 sq. km., the prevailing severe HEC, and their conservation needs (especially genetic and population considerations), the question I then asked was: “Can we justify the crop damage and manslaughter taking place?... The question is can we afford to spend on populations that are not viable at the expense of better populations?” Over the last two decades, habitat loss and fragmentation have created a greater number of such isolated populations. Over that time we have not been pragmatic enough even to decide where we want to go with such situations. Today, some of Dalma’s elephants, which were wandering deep into southern West Bengal on an annual basis in the 1980s, have taken up permanent residence in West Bengal, causing year-round problems. In the 1980s, Chandaka attempted to control HEC by confining elephants to the PA using trenches and electric fences. Today, fewer than 30 elephants are resident within the park, the rest having taken residence in scattered forest patches outside the PA. As can be expected, HEC is very severe. So what exactly has been achieved during the past two decades remains unanswered and unanalysed. We do not even know if we should persist with such an approach. What is abundantly clear is that conflict has escalated significantly and both areas have failed to serve as elephant conservation areas. We persist, however, with attempts at conservation in even smaller areas and even more degraded and fragmented areas. It is not because we care for elephants but because we do not want to step-up to scientific and pragmatic conservation – because we do not want to take hard decisions or pay for our past errors (mismanaging forests and not taking technically sound decisions). Will we ever become honest and mature enough to understand and accept what conservation is really about?

Elephant calves are born after a gestation period of 22 months and they are weaned by the mother only after the age of five years. The success of elephant conservation will depend entirely upon whether or not we are able to protect vast landscapes of forests for the elephant calf when it grows up to be independent and on curtailing poaching. Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee.


Back in the 1980s, I spoke of losing Koodu-Comban (Cross Tusker) to poachers. My colleagues and I were emotionally attached to this animal. There have been other males with crossed tusks, and I have since seen younger animals with them, but what I said then still holds: “There are other cross tuskers but for us there was only one  Cross Tusker.”

The point I want to make is that what is lost stays lost. There were numerous humongous older bulls (50+ years of age) well over 10 feet (304 cm.) in height then. Today we rarely see a bull over 30 years old. Will I live long enough to see these youngsters grow to that age and if so how many will there be? A handful? The sex ratios back in the late 1980s were one adult male for every five females, which was depressing enough. By the late 1990s it had plunged to 1:30 in Mudumalai; there has been a slow recovery since then but will that be sustained? Back then I had written: “In the North and Northeast, where incidents of poaching were very low, once again the ugly head of poaching is beginning to rear up. Some cases are being reported in the North and it is best to tackle it seriously now, as delay will only result in the formation of organised gangs.” Christy Williams, a colleague who has monitored some populations in North India, has noted that sex ratios in the 1990s were 1:1.8 and have since declined to 1:4 or 5 indicating severe poaching pressure. Northeast India has also seen poaching of females for meat and other products (other than ivory) which has significantly reduced elephant populations in some areas. Lack of older males is also resulting in aberrant behaviour by younger males. There have been increasing incidents of young males attacking and killing each other and also of killing females. Surprisingly, elephant society requires older males to control or moderate the behaviour of younger males (this was actually tested in Africa).

Poaching still remains a significant problem and what we now realise is that the associated problems generated by it will haunt us for a long time.

The shattered kingdom of the Asian elephant. Elephas maximus formerly ranged from West Asia into the Indian subcontinent and extended eastwards into Southeast Asia. Now extinct in West Asia, Java and most of the China, it  survives in highly fragmented populations in 13 countries – Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, China, Indonesia (Kalimantan and Sumatra) Lao PDR, Malaysia (Peninsular Malaysia and Sabah), Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam.

In Conclusion

I will quote again from what I wrote in Sanctuary 20 years ago, which shows that we have not really moved forward and are in a far more dire situation today than we were in the 1980s. We are still talking…

“Manas in Assam has shown how little the words ‘World Heritage Site’ ‘Biosphere Reserve’ and such like grandiose honours mean when it comes to politics and lawlessness… we sat and watched it happen…If Project Elephant can’t guarantee more action than name, then I’m afraid we shall be witness to a lot more such ‘happenings’ in future.”

The success of Project Elephant will depend entirely on it being scientifically managed and in our ability as a nation to take bold and realistic decisions. There is room neither for emotion nor ego. Today the elephant ranges over large areas of forest and in conserving them we will be saving what little remains of the forest cover. In that lies our future. This will be the elephant’s greatest contribution to India. In repaying a 5,000-year-old debt, we will in reality be helping ourselves. 5,000 years later, if our civilisation manages to survive its self-inflicted ecological traumas, I hope people will look back and say
‘Project Elephant’ was a job well done.”

“…Believe me, if the elephant were to ever go, we would be gone before it, maybe not us, but definitely the ecosystem and society as we know it.”

It’s not about elephants or conservation anymore, it’s really about us. Climate change, water wars, energy crisis, etc… all the precursors to a breakdown of civilised society are staring us in the face today… or have you not been reading the real news? Now with the Ministry of Environment and Forests set to upgrade Project Elephant to the same status as Project Tiger, more funds and more powers will be available. But will we actually move towards science-based and realistic conservation? Will we be able to take hard decisions? I can only hope that 20 years hence, I or some youngster reading this article will have a different story to tell!



Ajay Desai was a field biologist and wildlife conservation expert who spent long years studying and following the fortunes of elephants in India. He was a pioneer in the study of elephant movements using radio collar and was a member of the Asian Elephant Specialist Group of IUCN, as well as a consultant to some State governments.

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