The problem

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THE elephant in India is at the crossroads.

It is easy to forget that the species and its ancient relatives have had a presence for at least three and a half million years in this land. The longer evolutionary and ecological history has to be factored into our view of the animal today. Between 3.6 and 2.7 million years ago, ancestral proboscidean forms (including Elephas hysudricus and Elephas planifrons roamed the northern part of the Indian subcontinent.1 The longer past also includes interaction with humans, with our own species a recent entrant, perhaps 60-70,000 years ago. Conflict with these large neighbours is not new but its intensity and scale are without precedent. Even as we struggle in this new millennium with issues of endangerment and coexistence, extinction and survival, it does help to keep in mind there is a long history to the landscapes we share with this and other species.

The human imagination has long been fascinated by the animal, probably the pre-eminent emblem of royalty down the ages in South as much as South East Asia. The first references to Ganesha appeared in the Rig Veda 3000 BCE, further reinforced in the Taittiriya Aaranyaka 1500 BCE.2 During the first millennium BCE , the epics and similar texts made the elephant a key figure in their narrative.3 Although the famous Harappan seal 2300 BCE is the first depiction of the elephant in Indian art, the sculptures of 300-200 BCE during the Mauryan empire, especially in Buddhist sites, started depicting the elephant as a central leitmotif.4

Yet the animal was critical to warfare. When Alexander first invaded India it was the might of Porus and his hundred odd war elephants that met him before he halted his conquests. The Nandas of Magadh had over 5000 elephants. Elephas maximus was crucial for the war machine: it is easier to capture and tame these huge animals, and that is what rulers have done for over 2000 years. The Seleucid rulers (descendants of his general, Seleucus Nikator) were to deploy Asian elephants in battle in many theatres of war across West Asia. An axiom that has held through the centuries was repeated by Babur in the 1520s. ‘The further east you go’, wrote the prince awestruck by the enormous beasts, ‘the more wild elephants there are.’5

This goes a long way in explaining why the animal got a measure of protection as early as 1873 in the Madras Presidency and six years later in British India. The government did not ban its killing: it asserted its right to capture and qualified when and where they could be killed. This was not new: the Arthashastra had prescribed the harsh death penalty for poachers in elephant forests. Such controls and the vastness of the habitat may explain the persistence of elephants over large parts of their historic range, i.e., till the relentless pressures of the last two centuries.6

Of course, elephants have long enjoyed varied and rich associations with the cultures of India and the rest of Asia. These epic, historical and spiritual renderings of the animal through the ages have seared the animal, ecologically and culturally, into the collective consciousness of the Indian. Hasti, Gajah, Yaanai – varied tongues and varied interpretations abound for the largest of all living terrestrial beings on Indian soil and yet, the species faces a singular problem.

The problem for the elephant is one of attrition of habitat. What it faces is an increasingly crowded landscape. There were 35 people to a square kilometre four centuries ago and only a quarter of the land was under the plough. Today the density is ten times as much and less than half the land mass is uncultivated.

Added to this shrinkage of range is the pressure of economic expansion on landscapes. This is especially true of highways and mines, dams and bridges, each of which can and do create new barriers to movement for these huge animals. No wonder that so much time and effort has been expended under Project Elephant and in two successive reports of the Elephant Task Forces of 1990 and 2010.7 Elephants cannot be isolated in island-like reserves but range over larger expanses. Keeping the links between intact habitats is vital for their long-term future.

The problem is even more complex. The tense conditions of the human-elephant encounter require speedy redress. The males are indeed killed for ivory, but the numbers that lose life due to crop protection are far greater. In turn, over 400 people a year are killed by elephants. As the Gajah Report warned, ‘The stress, suffering and loss are all too real. It is tragic for elephants as well as humans are both victims in the conflict. 8

Elephant-human conflict has been present since Vedic times, and more recently has been documented by several scientists and conservationists.9 Several innovative methods to mitigate conflicts, including using of repellents like chillies and honey bees to keep away elephants, using grain-for-grain as a ex-gratia relief mechanism or modern technology for averting elephant-rail accidents have variously been used as pilots but the long-term solution remains the securement of land in key habitats. If the animals need living space and corridors, people too need protection, succour and help. Separation may work in key habitats but the larger shared spaces need a different set of interventions. In the short-term, elephants and people die due to these conflicts.


Map showing the approximate locations and extent of the eight gajavanas or elephant forests mentioned in the Arthasashtra, as reconstructed by Thomas Trautmann based on ancient Sanskrit texts. (1) Prachya Vana (2) Kalinga Vana (3) Chedikarusa Vana (4) Dasarna Vana (5) Angareya Vana (6) Aparanta Vana (7) Saurashtra Vana and (8) Panchanada Vana.

Note: 6000 + asml = approximately 2000 metres above sea level.

Map redrawn by Gitanjali Sukumar from Trautmann, 1982.


Elephant Reserves in India

1. Mayurjharna ER; 2. Singhbhum ER; 3. Mayurbhanj ER; 4. Mahanadi ER; 5. Sambalpur ER; 6. Baitarni ER; 7. South Odisha ER; 8. Lemru ER; 9. Badalkhol – Tamorpingla ER; 10. Kameng ER; 11. Sonitpur ER; 12. Dihing – Patkai ER; 13. South Arunachal ER; 14. Kaziranga – Karbi Anglong ER; 15. Dhansiri – Lungding ER; 16. Intanki ER; 17. Ripu – Chirang ER; 18. Eastern Dooars ER; 19. Garo Hills ER; 20. Khasi Hills ER; 21. Mysore ER; 22. Wayanad ER; 23. Nilgiri ER; 24. Rayala ER; 25. Nilambur ER; 26. Coimbatore ER; 27. Anamalai ER; 28. Anamudi ER; 29. Periyar ER; 30. Srivilliputtur ER; 31. Shivalik ER; 32. Uttar Pradesh ER

A word on the ivory trade is a must at this point. Elephants have the largest evolved pair of incisors in the animal world. For over two millennia, India had been a prime source of demand for African ivory as they are fine-grained enough for carving. Only in recent decades, India along with the 12 other elephant range nations of Asia, has taken a view that the trade in ivory is a threat to these species. It is also seen as ethical to protect species as common heritage and ecological treasure, not simply to generate wealth via trade.

In the African context, the ivory trade is causing large numbers to be wiped out and many local populations are threatened by local extermination; even extinction. Currently the main demand seems to be from Japan and China for carving hankos or name seals, both an object of utility, and for many of our fellow Asians, a thing of beauty. This demand also threatened elephants in India, and was at an all-time high in the late 1990s when poaching resulted in as many as 100-150 animals being killed annually.10 Effective protection and smart international policy work has ensured that the demand of ivory from India has currently decreased and poaching controlled to levels that do not threaten the species with extinction.

There has been high quality work on elephant demography in its various ranges in India,11 and in mapping its corridors.12 Unfortunately, in policy work on securing both of these, the elephant has lagged behind the other great conservation icon of India, the tiger. The point needs some elaboration. Experts hold that the future of the tiger can be secured mainly via protected reserves, with some connecting corridors. In the case of elephants the reverse is true. Of the 110,000 square km of the elephant reserves, as much as forty per cent is outside parks and sanctuaries.13 In these larger expanses, contact with humans is inevitable and if both are to endure, land use planning, protection of livelihoods of people and intelligent intervention to minimize confrontation is critical.

Yet, efforts for this kind of inclusive, science-based planning that ameliorates those who share living space with elephants need a more a stable footing and adequate finances. For tigers, the National Tiger Conservation Authority (the former Project Tiger) not only has an enabling chapter of law in the Wildlife Protection Act of India, 1972, through its amendment in 2006 but also a budget of Rs 1240 crore in the 12th five year plan. Project Elephant which still continues as a project of the Wildlife Division of the Ministry of Environment and Forests has no autonomy, the concept of elephant reserves or elephant corridors enjoy no legal sanctity and the combined national budget for elephants is a mere Rs 200 crore for the 12th five year plan.14

It is not that we love the tiger less or that we like the elephant more; but we make the point only to emphasize that the human and landscape dimensions of the challenge are all too real. Nevertheless, the opportunity to build on innovative approaches should not be missed out.15

However, are numbers alone a good criterion for assessing elephant conservation success? Perhaps not. Consider the following. The elephant population has remained relatively stable in India as per previous elephant censuses which tallied 25877, 26413, 27669-27719 and 27785-31,369 in 1997, 2002, 2007 and 2012 respectively. This is consistent with the fact of the elephant being a long lived animal. An elephant lives an average of 60 years compared to a maximum of 20 years of a tiger (three times the longevity), which also means that any major elephant demographic change will naturally be slower to be visible to the human eye, a human lifetime approximating an elephant’s rather than a tiger’s.

Add to this the fact that the one thing a mega herbivore needs to survive long-term is land. Because it is mega or big (elephants on average weigh 3000 kg) it needs to eat a large amount of food (on average between 1.5-2% of its own body weight in 12 hours of feeding16). Although it is catholic in its diet17 and eats up to 112 different browse and forage, it needs to traverse long distance in order to find enough food and, also as an ecological strategy, to allow its habitat to regenerate while it traverses along a century old local path for movement. Land is also the most important asset for the other mega-being that occupies India – Homo sapiens. Land is a key factor for social dispute,18 creation of wealth19 and political stability.20 Land is also probably among the least available natural resource (with the exception of water) that is considered a basic or fundamental need for the burgeoning population of 1.2 billion people. The battle for land between the mega-being and the mega-herbivore would naturally be one of immense attrition. This attrition has seen conflict levels rising in India in several elephant states, resulting in more crop damage, more human killings, more elephant deaths21 and often reverses in the adulatory or iconic image of the elephant among the Indian populace.

Still, in many parts of India the elephant headed god is worshipped or held in high respect by several religions including Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Muslims and Christians22, retaliatory killings are considered taboo, and the elephant has familial names (such as Dalgopa in Garo that denotes an elder). These mutually contradictory values and social objectives ensures that extinction does not happen overnight in any population, but attrition happens all the time. We do not want to romanticize such relations but we do hope to craft strategies of co-sharing the larger landscape that draw on them.

In 2010, the Ministry of Environment and Forests set up an Elephant Task Force to study the existing issues facing the Asian elephant in India. The task force submitted its report entitled ‘Gajah’ later that year. The major eight heads of reform suggested in that report included: establishing a better governance model (including formation of a National Elephant Conservation Authority; amending the Wildlife Protection Act to plug elephantine loopholes and encouraging direct recruitment to key posts governing elephant conservation in the country); upgrading research and monitoring systems (including establishing a national baseline for elephant numbers; establishing physical elephant research stations); securing elephant landscapes (by rationalizing reserves and corridors and demarcating no go, slow go and let go areas); conflict mitigation (including setting up high conflict zone task forces and innovative mitigation methods); anti-poaching and trade control (including filling up ground level vacancies of forest protection forces and investing in intelligence); captive elephant welfare (phasing out elephant use commercially and introducing welfare measures for existing populations); taking a global lead in elephant conservation and taking Gajah back to the Prajah or people. These were in conjunction considered a holistic means of elephant conservation.

There has been little or no government will to implement the report. In effect, it is not elephant conservation that is in practice in India. What we have is elephants being protected in areas where they are threatened; worshipped on occasions of divinity; reviled when conflicts come up; empathized with when press coverage of their demise is broadcast and managed on a day to day basis. Not the best way forward.

What is it that the elephant has given to the land? Why is it that it is a National Heritage Animal? There is a need for all right thinking Indians to have answers to these questions.

This issue of Seminar is the beginning of a conversation about the land and the elephant. The issue is often posed as India or the other 18 elephant range Asian nation states saving the elephant, about its vitality in our shared ecological future and our common past heritage. Perhaps the reverse is also true, or truer still: in securing a future for these animals in the wild, we also take a giant step towards a future for ourselves. As Asia in general and India in particular emerges as a key player in the new world, the elephant can be a symbol of peace with nature, and a symbol for peace among people.




1. M. Trivedi, ‘Pachyderms and their South Asian Pasts’, Seminar 651, November 2013.

2. N. Krishna, ‘Omkara, the Creation of Ganesha’, Seminar 651, November 2013.

3. R. Sukumar, ‘Elephants, Empire, Ecology and Ethics’, Seminar 651, November 2013.

4. Bulbul Sharma, ‘True Colours’, Seminar 651, November 2013.

5. On the Seleucids see R. Sukumar, The Living Elephants, Evolutionary Ecology, Behaviour and Conservation. OUP, NY, 2003, pp. 81-83; on Babur, Wheeler Thackston (edited and translated), Baburnama: Memoirs of Babur, Prince and Emperor. The Modern Library, New York, 2002, p. 335.

6. Thomas Trautman, ‘Elephants and the Mauryas’ (1982), in M. Rangarajan and K. Sivaramakrishnan (eds.), India’s Environmental History: From Ancient Times to the Colonial Period. Permanent Black, Ranikhet, 2012, 1: 152-181. The phrase persistence as opposed to retreat of elephants due to the pressures of Han Chinese settlement in China is taken from Prof. Trautman, ‘The Persistence of Elephants’. Unpublished Lecture, Centre for Studies in Science Policy, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, 1 February 2012.

7. S. Deb Roy, D.K. Lahiri-Choudhury and R. Sukumar, Report of the Elephant Task Force, Ministry of Environment and Forests, Govt of India, 1990; and also M. Rangarajan, A. Desai, R. Sukumar, P.S. Easa, V. Menon, S. Vincent, Suparna Ganguly, B.K. Talukdar, Brijendra Singh, Divya Mudappa, Sushant Chowdhary and A.N. Prasad, Gajah: Securing the Future for Elephants in India. The Report of the Elephant Task Force. 31 August 2010, Ministry of Environment and Forests, Govt. of India.

8. Gajah, 2010: 8-12, p. 9, emphasis added.

9. C.K. Sar and D.K. Lahiri-Choudhury, Elephant-Human Conflict in Asia, Report on Orissa, India. AERCC, 1992; V. Menon, P.S. Easa, N. Gureja and J.V. Cheeran, Human-Elephant Conflict: is Capture a Permanent Solution, in Endangered Elephants – Past, Present and Future. Symposium on human-elephant relationships and conflicts, 2003.

10. Vivek Menon, Tusker, The Story of the Asian Elephant. Penguin, Delhi, 2002.

11. Raman Sukumar, The Asian Elephant: Ecology and Management. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1989. Sukumar and Santiapillai, ‘Elephas Maximus: Status and Distribution’, in J. Shoshani and P. Tassy (eds.), Proboscidea: Evolution and Palaeoecology of Elephants and Their Relatives. Oxford University Press, New York, 1996. N. Baskaran, A. Udhayan and Ajay A. Desai, Status of the Asian Elephant: Population in Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary, Southern India, Gajah, 2010.

12. V. Menon, Sandeep Tiwari, P.S. Easa and R. Sukumar, Right of Passage: Elephant Corridors in India. Wildlife Trust of India, Delhi, 2005.

13. Gajah, 2010.

14. Ministry of Environment and Forests.

15. For instance, see M. Anand Kumar, ‘Behavioral Ecology of Asian Elephant (Elephas maximus) in a Plantation Dominated Landscape.’ PhD Thesis. University of Mysore, Mysore, India. Also, Nature Conservation Foundation, Annual Technical Report No. 19, Human-Elephant Coexistence: Community Involvement in Conflict Resolution in a Land Use Mosaic in the Anamalai Hills, Tamil Nadu, India, Mysore, 2010. 47fd1af5a4&view=att&th=13f0f6038cb046 c0&attid=0.4&disp=inline&realattid=f_hhizwj8j3&safe=1&zw&saduie=AG9B_P__wBZavD07zISvAwWrzjW5&sadet=1382329178368 &sad s=ARS-0XpKLVRTICwttyKRHNP9m-Q&sadssc=1

16. R. Sukumar, Asian Elephant, 1989.

17. Ibid.

18. Babetter Wehrmann, Land Conflicts: A Practical Guide to Dealing With Land Disputes. 2008.,GTZ.

19. Sebastian Barfield, The Beauchamps: Earls of Warwick (1298-1369). Unpublished M Phil Thesis.

20. C.D. Brocket (1992) ‘Measuring Political Violence and Land Inequality in Central America’, American Political Sciencce Review, 1992.

21. R. Sukumar, The Living Elephants Evolutionary Ecology, Behaviour and Conservation. Oxford University Press, 2003.

22. N. Krishna, ‘Omkara: The Creation of Ganesha’, Seminar 651, November 2013.