ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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A National Elephant Survey

Of Pachyderms and Poop

While it is perceived that India has a healthy population of elephants, a coordinated and standardised estimation of elephant populations has never been attempted nationwide. The All India Synchronised Asian Elephant Population Estimation seeks to map both elephant numbers and distribution simultaneously across states.

The elephant enjoys a unique place in both India’s conservation history and the present. It is an animal feted for being wise and holy, and is also at the centre of aggressive human–wildlife conflict. Due to this dual heritage, the elephant’s place as a “holy animal” or cultural icon leads to its idolatry as also disrespect. It is only the elephant that has high protection under the law and can also be kept captive—nearly all Indian wild species are protected under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 and cannot be kept captive. Captive elephants kept by private individuals are beaten and subdued, a practice that may not end soon. In a relatively recent move, the Government of India (GoI) declared the elephant as India’s heritage animal (PIB 2010). While many argue that not much has changed for elephants—habitat is fragmented, elephants are still poached and still become roadkill, among many other threats—there is now a scientific effort to map elephant numbers and distribution in India.

As per Gajah, a report of the Ministry of Environment and Forests, India has over 26,000 elephants (MoEF 2010), though the 2012 “census” gives the number at 30,000. However, this number is based on a guesstimate from many parts of the country. There are at least two outstanding issues related to elephant counts or estimations done in India thus far. First, states have not used standardised protocols to count elephants. This is unlike the All India Tiger Estimation—which estimates numbers of tigers every four years—using a set methodology. Elephants may have been missed, or may have been double counted owing to their local migrations. Second, elephants can often be hard to see. For instance, in India’s north-eastern states, impenetrable forest makes it hard to spot elephants even if a herd is next to the observer. One can hear elephants flapping their ears, methodically breaking bamboo, or trumpeting, and still not know how many elephants are nearby. Elephant counts in different states also do not reveal proportions of elephants. Elephant biology also entails understanding population structure. The classification of age and sex in a herd, and looking at the dynamics of solitary animals within the landscape is also required for better conservation planning (Baskaran et al 2013).

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Updated On : 9th Jun, 2017

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