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Neither the Elephants nor Their Memory

The death of a 15-year-old pregnant wild elephant from consuming an explosive-stuffed fruit in Kerala gained international attention and outrage (on Social Media). The elephant belonged to Silent Valley National Park (SVNP), Palakkad, and died in Velliyar river in Malappuram with its trunk in the water on May 27.

The autopsy conducted on the elephant found that the injuries she suffered were at least two weeks old. Issues of human-wildlife conflict in Kerala came to light when forest officials made it clear that that fruits filled with firecrackers are used as bait for wild boars.

Rumours that the elephant died in Malappuram, the only Muslim-majority district in Kerala, and that the elephant consumed a pineapple stuffed with live firecrackers, along with other accusations against the Muslim community in Malappuram showed the propaganda surrounding the issue. Kerala Forest Department (KFD) filed an FIR against unidentified persons on 28th May. Renjith, Animon and Sharath natives of Karavoor were arrested and produced at Punnala Model Forest Station on 10th June. 

Union Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar was quick to jump on the issue. On June 4th, he tweeted:

After this tweet, the central government took no further action except asking the Kerala government to look into the matter. 

The National Green Tribunal (NGT) on 5th June took Suo Motu cognisance of the death and formed a committee to probe the matter and submit an action taken report on 7th July. The NGT order elaborated and explained its actions, stating that the case had been registered in an effort to avoid similar incidents in the future provide a “long term strategy to reduce man-animal conflict in wildlife area or fringe village adjoining the forest area.”

The report to be submitted at the NGT will be of landmark value in shaping legal discourse around human-wildlife conflict. It may even further in reinforcing a mechanism to reduce or regulate human-wildlife conflict. 

A total of 373 elephants have died unnaturally in the last three years all over India. Sixty-two (62) died due to train accidents, two hundred and twenty-six (226) died due to electrocution, and fifty-nine (59) died due to poaching and twenty-six (26) died due to poisoning. In February 2019, Dr Mahesh Sharma, Minister of State in the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change responded with these stats at the Lok Sabha. The break-up of unnatural death shows all of them are occurrences of human interference or conflict in different ranges. The deaths point towards how elephants are possibly straying from familiar paths because of human-interferences.

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The Northeast Frontier Railway (NFR) in 2018 used ‘Plan Bee‘ to scare elephants away from train tracks, and won an innovative idea award and ₹3,00,000 for it. But recent claims say elephants have been getting accustomed to the sounds. Tamil Nadu forest department had installed infrared sensors to spot and drive them away from train tracks. The forest department of Uttarakhand has started using drones to track elephant movement. Despite these claims in 2019, there have been no reports on these plans after implementation.

“Encroachment on forests, blocking of natural wildlife corridors for constructions and setting up of tourist resorts have hampered the free movement of wild animals in their natural habitats. Habitat restoration is the scientific long term solution,” said N. Badusha of Wayanad Prakrithi Samrakshana Samithy to journalist K A Shaji.

Exploits of the Environment Minister

Javadekar’s exploits have been drawing attention and criticism by media and environment experts. The top BJP minister, who is also holding the office of Information and Broadcasting, along with the office of Heavy Industry and Public Enterprises, is on an endeavour to amend the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA). 

Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) Delhi, defines EIA as the study to predict the effect of a proposed activity/project on the environment. A decision-making tool, EIA compares various alternatives for a project and seeks to identify the one which represents the best combination of economic and environmental costs and benefits.

HuffPost India established that he overruled a recommendation by his own ministry officials to extend the time for public consultation. An earlier report from HuffPost India lists official records that prove Prime Minister Narendra Modi sought out for the controversial amendments to environmental laws and procedures.

India hosted the 13th Conference of Parties (COP) of the Convention on the conservation of Migratory Species of wild animals (CMS), an environmental treaty under the aegis of the United Nations Environment Programme, between the 17th and 22nd February 2020, at Gandhinagar in Gujarat. The environment ministry tabled a watershed proposal, listing the highly endangered Great Indian Bustard, the Bengal Florican and the Asian elephant in Appendix I of the convention for the utmost protection of these species. Animal rights lawyer Alok Hisarwala wrote for about the many glaringly obvious loopholes in the draft. The document identifies, “Habitat loss, fragmentation, human-elephant conflict, poaching and illegal trade of elephants” as some of the main challenges that confront Asian elephants and calls for an immediate prohibition on capturing wild elephants,” but blissfully ignores the state of elephants in captivity and temples. 

Image: WWF

There are 2,500 elephants in India under captivity, and close to 1,687 are with private individuals — the remaining are with zoos, circuses and temples. Certificate of ownership under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, issues individuals right to possess or own wild animals, animal articles, trophies, or uncured trophies. This law created an exception for elephants that were in captivity, taking into account elephants that were already in private possession. But the law has been misused for decades, and new elephants have been issued ownership certificates. These elephants are often obtained illegally by their owners, and numerous examples of animals used at weddings, begging on the streets have pointed at an immediate and stringent policy to safeguard elephants.

The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MOEFCC) released data in January 2019 that found 49 elephants were killed in Railway accidents between 2016-18. West Bengal and Assam together accounted for 37 out of the 49 deaths of elephants on train tracks across the country. The state governments have shown no signs of figuring out how to control the situation, the possible solutions they’ve come up with haven’t been successful. But it could create a possible chart for estimating animal movement time. New rail routes and lines are cutting through forests and critical wildlife zones, and governments are approving them. A 164.44 km Hubballi-Ankola railway line passes through the Western Ghats, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The project will see felling of 2.2 lakh trees, a move that has been opposed even by the members of the Karnataka State Wildlife Board (KSWB).

Habitat loss

With elephants destroying fields that come in the way of their migratory path, various steps like electric fencing, walls, scare tactics and metal poles have been used to block their path. This either enrages the elephants and leads to more damage, or sometimes scares them away. Elephants are a known nuisance to farmers in many parts and are therefore subject to harsh treatment in a bid to get rid of them. Habitat loss is why elephants wander into a human settlement, leading to human-elephant conflict. A 2018 published study has suggested that around 41.8% of the 256,518 square kilometres of habitat available at present will be lost due to the combined effects of climate change and human pressure. The severe loss of elephant habitat is leading to an increase in human-elephant conflict. The study also said the projections could help identify critical habitat areas that require immediate conservation attempt. 

Poaching and illegal hunting/trading of Asian elephants can attract rigorous imprisonment of up to seven years and a minimum fine of 25,000 rupees. The Law Commission chaired by Justice A P Shah in 2014 submitted an interim report with “suggestions and recommendations … for simplifying the legal structure”. That included the Elephants’ Preservation Act, Act 6 of 1879 with comments that suggested the Act imposes only an insignificant fine of Rs 500.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) has listed the Asian Elephant in Appendix I, which prohibits all commercial and international trade of the species. It is a heavily legally protected animal that is still illegally hunted and poached.

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The rage that was felt for the pregnant elephant in Kerala, if translated and focused towards various governmental bodies for accountability, could bring about a huge change in wildlife and environmental conservation. The outrage that rose was enough to get The National Green Tribunal to act on its own, and this energy could even save more than just the Asian elephants if sustained. It could bring attention to various other outrageous policies (EIA 2020) or governmental activities (construction of railway lines and other industrial activities in rain forests and protected areas).

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