India is home to a population of c. 26,000 Asian elephant Elephas maximus over an area of c. 110,000 km2. Currently 65,000 km2 of this area is declared as 32 Elephant Reserves across Protected Areas (30%), Reserved Forests (40%) and private lands (30%). Securing this landscape for the elephant is a challenging task in a country that has an expanding economy and over a billion people competing for space, some of it with elephants.
In 2010 an Elephant Task Force was set up by the federal Government to recommend measures for long-term conservation of the species. The Task Force is headed by a wildlife historian and political analyst, an indication that issues with elephant conservation encompass the broader social milieu. The Task Force's recent report, Gajah: Securing the Future for Elephants in India (http://moef.nic.in/downloads/public-information/etf_report_final.pdf) was based on country-wide consultations with an array of people including farmers, elected representatives, forest officials, wildlife biologists, conservation and welfare activists, mahouts, veterinarians, temple committees and elephant owners.
The report is critical of the lack of focus and attention at the highest level of Government and suggests the creation of National Elephant Conservation Authority and Reserve Level Management Advisory Committees comprising elected representatives, conservationists and others, and that the Commitees should hold public hearings. The report also calls for a critical evaluation of the current population estimation methods for elephants, and recommends a combination of distribution and abundance indices in non-protected areas and intensive surveys for robust density estimates in select sites. The report proposes that protected areas be expanded to include critical habitats and corridors or be declared as Community or Conservation Reserves, as appropriate. To reduce further fragmentation, Elephant Reserves need to be declared as Ecologically Sensitive Areas, with infrastructure development, mining and local livelihood activities to be halted or permitted only under strict ecological safety standards.
Another critical issue addressed is the way elephant habitats are managed in the name of habitat improvement (see Oryx 43, 326-327). The report provides guidelines on management of surface water, forest road construction and other activities in elephant habitats. This is an effort to inculcate scientific management and also for optimal utilisaton conservation funds. With respect to the ivory trade, the report states: 'no rationale, whether ecological, economic [or] ethical can justify the international ivory trade'.
Every year in India > 400 people lose their lives to elephants and at least 500,000 farmers are affected by crop depredation. The Task Force calls for an integrated approach to defuse tension, more accountability in the way physical mitigation measures are implemented, and suggests the creation of local Conflict Management Task Forces, involving local elected representatives, the media and farmers, with a minimum of two local meetings annually to address conflict issues. In a bid to take elephants to the people, the report also proposes that the elephant be declared a national heritage animal.
Although implementation of some of the recommendations of the Eelephant Taks Force may not necessarily be realistic, the report has shown how Government appointed committees can perform for conservation.
A edited version of this article was published in the January 2011 edition of Oryx - The International Journal of Conservation.