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Pack up, pachyderms?
A staggering number of elephant deaths occur in Assam. As the state develops intensively, its jumbos are perishing
As India races down the fast track to economic growth, its animals are increasingly being left behind to fend for themselves. In Assam, things couldn’t be worse for the elephas maximus indicus — the Asian elephant — which finds itself with nowhere to run and nowhere to hide. Eleven out of 27 districts in Assam are experiencing a serious man-elephant conflict to which no solution appears in sight. The problem arises from the massive development plans the central and state governments have lined up for the Northeast. Roads, dams and hydroelectric projects are emerging across the region, the mighty river valleys of Kameng, Brahmaputra, Subansiri and Dibang in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh bearing the greatest impact.
Amidst all this, Assam has more than 5,280 elephants living over 20,000 sq km. The original ‘elephant corridor’, where the pachyderms lived and moved, stretched in an unbroken arc from the Dooars and Terai plains in Nepal and north Bengal to Bhutan, Assam and the lower Himalayas, ending in Myanmar and south-east Asia. But over 100-odd years — first, with the British who brought tea cultivation and railways to the region, then with independent India which sought better communication, power supplies and more cultivable land for its growing population — the route the gentle giants took for millennia began getting blocked.
Where modern priority lies is brutally evident. Hectares of forests have been cleared for roads cutting through elephant terrain. Assam’s principal chief conservator of forests, Suresh Chand, says such projects are cleared only after ensuring minimal impact to wildlife. “If we find a development project has significant impact on wildlife and its habitat, we deny clearance,” he says.
According to him, the National Highways Authority of India will make provisions for elephant movement in the form of viaducts built along roads developing across the Lumding forest. Chand says, “Clearance was given only after measures were set ensuring least impact.” The arrangements speak volumes about how wildlife conservation is treated by government. Planners expect elephants to take viaducts across roads. This, when the government can’t make human beings follow simple pedestrian rules.
The increasing number of orphaned elephant calves indicates the seriousness of the issue. A study by the Wildlife Trust of India and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) found 55 orphaned elephant calves were rescued in the Northeast between 2000 and 2009. A staggering 85.5 per cent were from Assam where, roads aside, another major threat to animals comes from the railways. According to the Elephant Task Force, Assam recorded a staggering 36 per cent of total elephant casualties in train accidents in India since 1987 — the highest in the country. West Bengal stood second at 26 per cent and Uttarakhand third with 14 per cent elephant hits.
This year, at least eight elephants have already been killed on rail tracks in Assam. Tracks passing through Deepor Beel, Karbi Anglong and Goalpara districts have emerged as ‘elephant killer’ zones. In 2008-09, eight jumbos were mowed down by trains in Karbi Anglong, which forms a contiguous landscape with Kaziranga where over 1,000 elephants live.
Among various steps aimed at correcting this worrying situation, the ETF suggests deploying sensors on railway tracks which will emit warning signals when ‘heavy animals’ approach. The ETF also suggests creating 10 elephant landscapes — special demarcated zones — to deepen awareness of wildlife conservation. Considering the relentless attacks Assam’s elephants are being subjected to, it will be a miracle if even a handful survives the next decade.
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