An elephantine conundrumOngoing and proposed mega projects pose major threats to the elephant population.
At the Valmiki Tiger Reserve in West Champaran district of Bihar, India, ‘steps are being taken to make few elephants, which stray from the adjacent Chitwan National Park in Nepal, permanent residents’ of the reserve. According to Dipak Kumar Singh, principal secretary of Patna’s environment, forest and climate change department, some elephants from Chitwan stray into the reserve for a few months every year and return.
The pattern, according to Singh, indicates that elephants seek a favourable habitat for which his department is working on habitat management to increase their stay time. It is important to note that besides Chitwan National Park, Bihar’s tiger reserve also extends to Parsa Wildlife Reserve in Nepal, both of which, according to a recent study commissioned by the government, can accommodate more tigers than previously estimated if habitat management and a dedicated conservation action plan is in place.
Nepal’s efforts in the past decade to double its tiger population has already shown the importance of habitat management besides anti-poaching measures. But its tuskers face a similar challenge as the country’s development aspirations grow bigger. The culprits are the same—expanding human settlements, deforestation and development projects.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, habitat loss compounded by fragmentation has not only resulted in a decline in elephant population, but it has also increased the rate of elephant-human conflict over time, and conservationists warn, Nepal’s elephant conservation efforts will go to waste and the wild elephants could go extinct.
From 2009 to 2018, the government spent an estimated $2,625,000 for its elephant conservation action plan, the primary goal of which was to save elephants from extinction, immediately addressing shrinking territories and mitigating elephant-human conflict. But figures from the same timeframe which looked into human death or injury due to conflict with wildlife between 2010 and 2014 tell a different story. Of the total 463 cases recorded in four years, 30 percent were related to elephant-human conflict. Most encounters, the study notes, occurred outside the protected areas in human settlements.
Additionally, more elephant-human conflicts have been reported in recent years as the environment deteriorated in important wildlife corridors. According to conservationists, ongoing infrastructure upgradation and proposed mega projects also pose major threats to the elephant population as they traverse elephant habitat or are being built along their core habitat areas.
The threats are real as has been witnessed in Banke National Park and Karnali Corridor, where irrigation projects disrupted elephant movement. Further restrictions in elephant movement is bound to cause more elephant-human conflict, and there is concern that Nepal could see the fate of India and Sri Lanka, where mega infrastructure projects have disrupted elephant movements and resulted in more encounters and deaths.
Elephants lead a nomadic lifestyle and the jumbo creatures are well known for their excellent memory, especially when it comes to tracing traditional migration routes, some of which are as ancient as the beings themselves. Prior to malaria eradication in the Tarai, conservationists have also recorded a long chain of elephant movement from Assam to northwest India via Nepal.
It is estimated that some 400 elephants migrate to Nepal from Bengal each year and move all the way to the central Tarai while resident wild elephants, estimated at 200, live in small herds across the Tarai belt, mostly in west and far west Nepal.
Last month, two elephant conservation projects from Nepal received conservation and research grants from the International Elephant Foundation. While there is international support for our conservation efforts, we also have a responsibility to the world. Nepal must revisit its elephant conservation strategy and lead the way as it has done in its effort to double the tiger population. Bihar’s tiger reserve is already showing us the way. Save the pachyderms.