An elephant died. Foraging near Silent Valley National Park in Palakkad, Kerala, she was lured by a luscious pineapple. As she chewed it, a crude bomb concealed within exploded in her mouth. In excruciating pain, she died a slow, agonising death over two weeks.
The post-mortem revealed she was pregnant.
India erupted in outrage. A large number of people, from the public to celebrities, politicians and business leaders seethed with rage on social media, demanding justice. Unfortunately, it brought out the worst in politicians. A section of India’s political establishment gave it a communal spin. The Minister of Environment, Forests & Climate Change termed such brutality “against Indian culture”.
In this righteous cacophony, the real, urgent issues that elephants and other wildlife face lie buried.
It would serve well for the Ministry to explain its own actions over the first half of 2020, which have laid waste elephant forests. In April 2020, the National Board for Wildlife — a body under the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) — approved coal mining in the Dehing-Patkai Elephant Reserve, India’s largest tropical lowlands forest. Two months earlier in February 2020, the NBWL had cleared Laldhang Road that will cut the sole wildlife corridor connecting Corbett and Rajaji tiger reserves. The ministry’s Forest Advisory Committee also allowed coal mining in 1,70,000 hectares of Chhattisgarh’s Hasdeo Arand forest, home to elephants and other wildlife. Karnataka had also approved the Hubbali-Ankola railway which would fell 2,20,000 trees across 600 hectares in the Western Ghats, a global biodiversity hotspot. This move was stayed by the high court on June 19, 2020
This is just a representative list of many such projects that will tear apart India’s natural habitats, their collective impact felling many elephants. These officially sanctioned ”bombs” are more lethal than the one that killed the hapless Palakkad elephant.
Our angst is selective. Why is there no outcry when four elephants were crushed by trains in Assam in February 2018, and later in the same year, seven were electrocuted in Odisha? Why no anguish over the female elephant, who died falling in a pit at self-proclaimed ”Godman” Ramdev’s 150-acre mega-industrial project in an elephant corridor, part of the Nameri National Park-Sonai Rupai Wildlife Sanctuary landscape?
Crocodile tears and half-baked, shrill activism serve no purpose. What we need is urgent action that preserves elephant habitat, ensuring that this intelligent, sentient animal, worshipped as Ganesha is not pushed out of its home into conflict with humans.
There is poor public understanding of wildlife issues. Most have ignored the elephant in the room: habitat destruction and bushmeat hunting (poaching wild animals for meat). Those demanding justice for the Palakkad elephant need to know about the acute and persistent human-elephant conflict in India. Over 400 people are killed every year by elephants, and nearly half-a-million suffer crop damage. Would we, who broil in rage, tolerate even a mouse in our home or a beehive in our garden or will we proceed to lay a glue trap for the rodent, and smoke out the bees? Those living close to wildlife and forests are far more tolerant and accepting of elephants and other wild neighbours, even when they lose lives, livelihoods, and homes.
Equally, there is retaliatory killing and widespread bushmeat poaching. Every night, across India bait bombs, snares, live-wire traps, and poisoned waterholes kill wildlife. The primary target might be wild pigs or deer, but they kill indiscriminately. Animals that constitute a carnivore’s prey base are exterminated, while also inadvertently killing or maiming big cats, elephants, and even humans. On 30th May 2020, a poacher in Odisha’s Keonjhar district was electrocuted by the live-wire trap he was laying. In November 2018, a tiger in Odisha’s Satkosia Tiger Reserve died after walking into a snare set to kill wild pigs. He had been brought from Kanha Tiger Reserve to help repopulate Satkosia, which suffers near tiger extinction. A tigress met a similar fate near Nagarhole Tiger Reserve in 2017.
Bushmeat poaching is no longer a primary source of protein for communities, and cannot be tolerated under the excuse of sustenance. In most cases, the prime drivers of bushmeat poaching are earning quick buck (no pun intended) and a taste for (free) exotic meat. In parts of North India it is considered a macho sport with the added allure of venison. In states like Odisha, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, southern West Bengal, and northern Andhra Pradesh it is a socially accepted pastime among communities who have traditionally hunted for meat, sport, and festivities and continue to do so 48 years after it was outlawed. Ritual mass hunting massacres occur under different names across east Indian states. One example is from south Bengal, where through the year, hundreds of animals are killed under the garb of ritual hunting: pangolins, jungle cats, jackals, wild boar, monitor lizards, and in one instance in Lalgarh in 2018, a tiger was beaten, bludgeoned, and speared to death.
Hunting for sport or festivities has long ceased to be sustainable. India no longer has vast swathes of wildlife habitats — the last relics of our natural habitats are fragmented islands. The greed for bushmeat has exterminated wild ungulates to the extent that East-Central India’s, large, contiguous forests are incapable of sustaining big cats, leading to local extinctions. This is acute in the vast tiger-elephant landscape encompassing Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Jharkhand, northern Andhra Pradesh, and southern West Bengal, including their protected areas.
Bushmeat poaching doesn’t receive the attention that the illegal trade in wildlife does. Yet, it is more widespread and deadly. Without undermining commercial poaching, it must be said that tigers and other carnivores, are equally, if not more threatened from bushmeat poaching of their prey base.
Shockingly, there is even a policy decision — to please vote banks — that classifies animals like wild pigs and nilgai, India’s largest antelope, as “vermin”. These are snared, shot, even buried alive, like at Bihar’s Vaishali district where a bulldozer was used to push a terrified nilgai into its grave, as crowds watched.
Indian culture? Surely not.
These are the issues that call for collective action. Question our governments when they sign away wildlife habitats. Speak up when legislators weaken wildlife laws to favour industry. Oppose ill-planned infrastructure in wildlife habitats and corridors. Outrage must be backed with clear understanding and knowledge to bring in useful change and lasting impact.
The Way Forward
To deal with the scourge of bushmeat poaching, India must address poor law enforcement and growing human-wildlife conflict. Poor enforcement results from a cocktail of understaffed, under-equipped frontline forest personnel, corruption, political interference, and poor conviction rates. Barely one per cent of cases get conviction in wildlife offences.
In a nation as densely populated as India, human-wildlife conflict will only increase. Farmers face serious, crippling losses from crop depredation. With some excellent exceptions, compensation for crop or livestock loss by wildlife gets lost in a maze of delays and corruption leading to desperate actions to kill wildlife.
There are no universal or simple solutions. However, there are best practices.
In some of our well-managed reserves, protection is strict, compensation for crop loss quick, employment from tourism and forest departments high, and forest departments work in partnerships with NGOs, local communities and other stakeholders.. This ensures a balance of enforcement, positive community attitudes, and both a low inclination as well as low tolerance for wildlife crimes. Positive relations with communities coupled with strict protection have, over generations, weaned out habitual bushmeat poaching in these areas.
Wildlife outside Protected Areas — only a third of elephants live within reserves — and living in human dense landscapes requires urgent attention with policies and practices that support minimal loss to both people and wild animals.
In Assam, there is a unique experiment of jumbo kheti where farmers set aside crops or leave land fallow for elephants in a system of land sharing that can be scaled up with compensatory or tourism revenues. Nuxalbari Tea Estate in north Bengal provides safe passage to elephants in a highly fragmented landscape. Such “wildlife-friendly” tea and coffee needs policy support, and offers a business model for other estates.
The outrage over the Palakkad elephant reminds us that India cares for her wildlife. But let the outcry not be selective or marred by politics. Channeled in the right direction, our collective voice can usher in lasting change and fuel much needed political will for our beleaguered wildlife.
is a wildlife conservationist and author of the critically acclaimed The Vanishing: India's Wildlife Crisis. She is a dog's best friend, loves books, reveres trees and has a soft spot for elephants.
is an Odisha based naturalist and wildlife conservationist.
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Enabling Wholistic Wellbeing & Meaningful Living
Enabling Wholistic Wellbeing & Meaningful Living