Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Ganesha's Tears

Editor, Protected Area Update

HERE ARE SOME interesting cross-border nuggets gleaned from the news media over the last few months.

One: Wild elephant migration from Karnataka to Goa and Maharashtra is termed ‘unnatural’ and Goa seeks Maharashtra’s help to drive the animals back. When Goa starts the operation it finds that its efforts to drive back the elephants have been hampered by trenches dug on the Maharashtra side to prevent the animals from entering that state. Goan authorities are asking Project Elephant authorities to intervene and ask Maharashtra to behave.

Two: Elephants that had ‘strayed’ from Orissa into Andhra Pradesh in late 2007 were termed ‘rogue’, and huge efforts were made to force them to return. Two of the animals were even darted, drugged and carried back to their home state. One died almost immediately, most probably due to an overdose of the drug used on it.

Three: Bangladesh authorities want India to ‘take back’ the 100-odd elephants that have moved across the international border from Meghalaya. They have threatened that the animals might otherwise be killed.

Four: The Nepal Government is reinforcing the border with India in north Bengal with low-voltage electric wires to prevent herds of elephants from crossing over along their traditional migratory routes.

Reading news like this gives you a sense of the tragi-comic drama being played out across elephant territory in the subcontinent.
Elephants crossing borders seems to generate human theatre of the most absurd kind. How else can one explain a country asking another to take back ‘its’ elephants, or one minister complaining to a counterpart in a neighbouring state that his elephants are causing trouble? If these guys are to be believed, wild elephants are waiting for us to issue them notices and will soon begin indicating their movement patterns so we can stay out of their way. Ganesha, it would seem, is a god from a completely different planet. It is ironic that a state like Maharashtra, for instance, which proudly showcases its celebrations of the elephant-headed god, has no space for, or acceptance of, the living embodiment of that loved and revered deity.

Human-wildlife conflict is a very real and problematic part of life in large parts of the subcontinent. No one can deny that. Nor will anyone argue that the situation on the ground is simple. The case of human-elephant conflict, in particular, is extremely protracted and complex.

In the period between 1994-2004, nearly 18,000 acres of paddy fields were destroyed across the country in just under 3,000 instances of elephants causing damage. At least 250 humans were reportedly killed by wild elephants in the states of Assam, West Bengal and Jharkhand in the last one year alone.

The pressure on administrators, politicians and forest staff to deal with the problem is undeniably huge. If you are a farmer and have lost an entire year’s production or your small house in one night of elephant raiding (or worse, watched someone die) you can’t be expected to be calm and contented. But surely those being asked to deal with the situation and find a solution can do better than just ask the neighbour to call the elephants back.
It is also important to bear in mind the elephant’s side of the story. Increasing encroachments, dam constructions, mining projects and infrastructure corridors have, over the years, ruthlessly destroyed the habitats of elephants and snapped traditional migratory routes. A number of the animals have been shot or electrocuted in retaliation, and many in the forests of north Bengal and Rajaji National Park (Uttaranchal) have suffered gory deaths in train accidents. Not only are the elephants being denied forests and migratory corridors that were traditionally and rightfully theirs, but terms like ‘straying’ herds, ‘rogue’ animals and ‘unnatural’ habitats are used thoughtlessly to hold them culpable for a problem they are not responsible for at all.

Borders created by human beings are becoming tragically problematic, even fatal, for the pachyderms. The largest mammal on land deserves better than to be shot, electrocuted or drugged for crossing our borders. It deserves to be treated with more respect and tolerance.

As for us human beings, we certainly have the potential to do better than merely blame our neighbours and demand that ‘their’ animals behave or be taken back. What this does is only deflect attention from the real problem; exhausting scarce resources and energies in trading charges and seeking solutions that are not only unimplementable, but outright ridiculous. It is, in fact, the best way to ensure that a solution will not be found at all.

A little common sense and pragmatism in dealing with the issue will certainly do no one any harm. It might actually be a good starting point from which to identify some meaningful resolution and long-term answers. •
From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 34, Dated Aug 30, 2008

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