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The need to restore elephant corridors in India

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Bengaluru, Sep 28: Securing a future for the elephant, its continued survival in the wild and its humane care in captivity constitute a major challenge in India.

Elephants cannot survive simply through strict protection of a few parks and sanctuaries. A sole focus exclusively on Protected Areas, vital as they are, is inadequate for the long term conservation of this keystone species.

Representational Image

As a long lived and sociable animal familiar to all of us since childhood, elephants may seem to require little help. But elephants and people are often in conflict. Asia's largest vertebrate, requires living space, food and water, and the search for these often conflicts with human aspirations and needs.

Human-elephant conflict status

Elephant herds are known to migrate across 350-500 sq. km. annually but increasingly fragmented landscapes are driving the giant mammals more frequently into human-dominated areas, giving rise to more man-animal conflicts, experts have found.

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According to Dr Varun R Goswami, who leads the elephant programme for Wildlife Conservation Society in India, each year, 400 to 450 human deaths and 100 elephant deaths are attributed to the human-elephant conflict.

The stress, suffering and loss are all too real. It is tragic for elephants as well as humans are both victims in the conflict. Both are victims of victims.

Maintaining elephant corridors is therefore of crucial importance to both elephant and human habitats.

27,312 is the estimated population of elephants in the wild as per a survey across 23 Indian states.

Uttarakhand, Odisha, Kerala, Chhattisgarh, Assam, West Bengal, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu are some of the states that face maximum human-elephant conflict.

A study on elephant corridors

'Right of Passage', an 800-page study released in August 2017, authored by experts and published by the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) in collaboration with Project Elephant and the U.K.-based NGO Elephant Family, identifies and records details pertaining to 101 elephant corridors across India.

Of these 101 corridors, 28 are located in south India, 25 in central India, 23 in northeastern India, 14 in northern West Bengal and 11 in northwestern India.

A giant worry

The 2017 report by WTI notes that about 74% corridors are of a width of one kilometre or less today, compared with 45.5% in 2005, and only 22% corridors are of a width of one to three kilometres now, compared with 41% in 2005, pointing to how constricted corridors have become in past 12 years.

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The ground situation studied in 2005 and 2017 also indicates degradation of corridors: 21.8% of corridors are free of human settlements in 2017 compared with 22.8% in 2005, and 45.5% have 1-3 settlements in 2017 compared with 42% in 2005. In terms of land use, only 12.9% of the corridors are totally under forest cover in 2017 compared with 24% in 2005.

Disrupted areas

Moreover, two in every three elephant corridors in the country are now affected by agricultural activities, the study points out, adding that 58.4% corridors fall under settled cultivation and 10.9% under jhum (slash and burn) cultivation.

"All the corridors in northern West Bengal (100%) and almost all in central India (96%) and northeastern India (52.2% under settled cultivation and 43.4% under slash and burn cultivation) have agriculture land. About 72.7% of the corridors in northwestern India and 32% corridors in southern India have agriculture land," the study states.

Taking note of 266 instances of elephants deaths caused by being run over by trains between 1987 and July 2017, the report points out that 20 corridors have a railway line passing through them.

Only 21.8% of corridors are free of human settlements compared to 22.8% in 2005, and 45.5% have one to three settlements compared to 42% in 2005.

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A large extent of corridor area and habitat is also being lost due to encroachment, with 28.7% of corridors now encroached upon.

Some 66.3% of corridors also have highways (national and/or state) passing through them. Twenty corridors already have railway lines passing through them and in four, a railway line has been proposed or construction work is in progress. An estimated 36.4% of corridors in Uttarakhand, 32% in Central India, 35.7% in Northern West Bengal and 13% in North-eastern India have railway lines passing through them.

(Between 1987 and June 2017, approximately 265 elephants have been killed by train accidents in different part of the country.)

About 40% of the corridors in Central India and 27% in North-western India are affected by irrigation canals. Overall, 11% of the corridors are affected by canals. Further, 11.9% of corridors are affected by mining and/or boulder extraction.

Need of the hour

1. The corridor should be legally protected by the state forest department under an appropriate law, and action should be taken to prevent agricultural activities on the goverment land, encroachment of forest land, illicit felling of trees and developmental activities detrimental to the corridor.

2. Expansion of human settlements and agriculture in Tankibasti and Samrang villages must be prevented.

3. The encroachment of corridor forest and habitat has to be prevented; the eviction of existing encroachments from critical parts of the corridor and surrounding habitat should be taken up on a priority basis.

Eviction not the answer

Eviction is definitely not the answer. Rather than relocating entire villages, we need to restore the corridors and ask people to avoid using critical [elephant] migratory routes. Conservation is an achievement only if local communities are also involved in the process.

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