ELEPHANTS ON THE BRINK
By John Seed
The largest population of Asian Elephants remaining in the wild is in danger and an Australian organization, the Rainforest Information Centre, is spearheading the campaign to persuade Indian governments to reconsider their decisions to situate developments where elephant habitat will be disrupted.
If you read no further than this, please go to http://bit.ly/india_elephants - where, with just a few clicks of the mouse, you can email the responsible authorities and join tens of thousands of concerned people around the world appealing to them to reconsider their hasty decisions regarding the two issues outlined below.
The elephants once ranged throughout most of Asia, but their habitat today is reduced to isolated fragments. Now they are unable to range as they once did, restricting their ability to migrate to follow the food, and breed with other groups to maintain their gene pool. This implosion of their habitats has lead to increased human-elephant conflicts ranging from poaching to crop-raiding and road-kills. This conflict, and the restriction of their ranges, is taking a heavy toll on their numbers.
Recent estimates of the number of Asian elephants (Elephus maximus) remaining in the wild range from 35,000 to 50,000. The distribution of Asian elephant populations in India is well known but population estimates, ranging from 26,000 to 31,000 are about 14 years out of date and many are based on nothing more than wishful thinking. So effective population sizes are much lower.
This is partly due to selective poaching of males for ivory. Unlike the African elephant, only males have tusks in India and poaching has resulted in some populations where females outnumber males by up to 30 to 1. The elephant is the most sacred animal in the Indian ethos but current official protection measures are grossly inadequate to safeguard the remaining wild population. The largest remaining population of wild Asian elephants inhabit the Nilgiris biosphere reserve. There are more elephants in the Nilgiris alone than in any other country in Asia. So this is their last major stronghold in Asia.
Out of a total population of about 2000 elephants surviving in Peninsular India in various fragmented habitat islands, the largest single population, somewhat more than 1000 elephants, survive in a near contiguous habitat extending over this tract.
They range through the three south Indian states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka following a seasonal food supply along well-trodden paths they have traveled since the monsoon cycle stabilized in its current pattern thousands of years ago.
Elephants need a lot of water and forage in the summer, so they have to migrate from the eastern to the western parts of this area according to the rhythm of the climate. However some of these corridors are being disrupted by human encroachment threatening the very survival of these ancient pathways, and their traditional travelers.
Increasing population in the plains and modern development moving up the hills necessitating roads, rail tracks and power lines has resulted in fragmentation of the once extensive forests so today only about 4500sq km of habitat remains accessible for elephants.
There are two main threats to the well-being and survival of this particular elephant population, one in Kerala and the other in Tamil Nadu. Due to the habitat fragmentation, the elephants moving from Karnataka to Kerala have to pass through a corridor which is only about 2.5 km wide. The major highway linking Bangalore with Calicut passes through this narrow corridor. It is used by hundreds of vehicles around the clock.
There are four different government departmental check-posts located close to the Kerala side. These are all currently located on the western edge of the narrow corridor, outside the forest.
Recently a decision was made to relocate all these check-posts within one campus and the location selected is exactly within the center of this narrow corridor. The checkpoint clearance takes hours, so this would mean hundreds of lorries parked along the road throughout the night on either side of the checkpoints, effectively cutting off this vital lifeline. A better solution would be the relocation of the checking stations to outside the forest on the Kerala side of the corridor where suitable land is available.
The second threat to these elephants lies in Tamil Nadu, in the eastern part of their range, where the best wet season forage is found. Here a vast physics experiment is planned, the U.S. $167 million India-based Neutrino Observatory (INO). During the summer, as food and water becomes scarce, elephants need to migrate from the drier forests of Tamil Nadu to the evergreen forests of Kerala.
In order to do so, these elephants must pass through a corridor at Singara, exactly where the India Based Neutrino observatory is to be located. The proposal would tunnel more than two kilometers and build a 100,000 ton neutrino detector underground in the middle of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve. Drilling and construction would require over 150,000 truckloads of material to pass through 35 kilometers of forest - and two tiger reserves.
Every indication is that this project has not been carefully thought through. Despite the huge sums of money involved, there has been no systematic attempt to determine the best site for the project within India. There are plenty of options: the Neutrino Observatory is not site specific, since it could be built at any site with one kilometer of rock cover on all sides.
In 1964, Indian scientists were the first in the world to detect neutrinos created in the atmosphere. The facility where this was accomplished was shuttered in 1992 when Kolar Gold Fields closed. Reopening the existing tunnels at Kolar will be cheaper than digging new ones and far less destructive of the environment. None of this has been properly taken into account when selecting the site.
Indeed, they could hardly have picked a site in India more likely to damage the wildlife. As well as being home to the largest single population of Asian elephants in the world, the Nilgiris is also one of the most important tiger habitats in the country.
676 species of plants, 173 species of vertebrates, 12 species of amphibians, 38 species of fish, 46 species of reptile, 87 species of birds and 28 species of mammals (including tiger, leopard, gaur, wild dog, bear, deer and elephant) live around the proposed site for these projects.
The conservation of this critical elephant habitat would not only serve to
protect the largest Asian
elephant population, but would also benefit the
entire ecosystem, including other rare species. Which is why the Nilgiris
was declared as a UNESCO Bio-sphere reserve in the first place.
If you haven't already done so, please visit http://bit.ly/india_elephants - where in less than a minute you can send emails to over 20 officials in the 2 states who could, if they wished, protect these elephants.
John Seed is an author, musician and filmmaker. He has been working since 1979 for the protection of the world's rainforests. Visit: www.rainforestinfo.org.au/deep-ecøjohnseed.htm
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