Vanishing Species – The Asian Elephant


An article by Mohan Pai

Elephas maximus

 

A magnificent beast and the largest land mammal, has a very special place in the Indian psyche.

India has been the main habitat of the Asian elephant. In spite of a drastic reduction in their numbers over the last century, India still has the highest population of the Asian wild elephants (about 25,000). The beast was tamed and domesticated and has been a part of the country’s religious, cultural, social scene for more than 5,000 years. The animal is inextricably linked with our history and lore. The seals of ancient Harappan civilization of the Indus valley(3000-2000 B.C.) depict figures of elephants.

One of the most venerated gods of the Hindu pantheon in India today is the elephant-headed Ganesha, the remover of all obstacles. Gajalaksmi, the elephant goddess is always shown with two elephants forming a triangular canopy with their trunks for goddess Lakshmi.

 

God Indra’s eight-trunk elephant – Airavat

Vedic God Indra’s vehicle is an eight-trunk white elephant called Airavat. The Buddha himself is considered an incarnation of the sacred white elephant. There is a remarkable manuscript “Gajashastra” (Elephant lore) dated around sixth – fifth century B.C. giving the natural history of elephants. The Aryans who arrived in India around 1500 B.C. realised the value of the great beast and captured elephants in large numbers through kheddah operations (driving entire herds into stockade), the method of capture adopted even in our own times in Kakankote, Mysore until 1971 the year in which the last kheddah was held.
Elephants feature quite prominently in the Vedas as well as the two great epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata, where the elephant is used as a war engine.
When Alexander the Great invaded India in 323 B.C. He faced a formidable array of King Porus’s 200 war elephants and elephants continued to be prized possessions of kings for the next 2000 years.

There is a profusion of elephant images in the sculptures of all the ancient and famous temples of Khajurao, Ajanta Elora, Badami & Pattadakal, Belur/Halebid, Hampi, Tanjore and many other temples in the south.
Elephants, even today are maintained by a lot of Hindu temples, especially in the south. Gurvayur in Kerala maintains several temple elephants which are used in religious processions. The pageant of the caparisoned elephants in the world famous Mysore Dussera is an annual feature that still continues to attract large number of visitors from abroad.
Elephants were the prized possessions of the Indian kings throughout the history of India. They were an integral part of their pomp and pageantry. The Mauryan kingdom maintained a large elephant army of about 9,000 elephants. The passion of the Hindu kings for elephants was passed on to the Muslim rulers who maintained large elephant stables or pil-khanas. The Moguls captured a large number of elephants both for their armies and their sports hunt. Jehangir (1605-1627 AD) reputedly maintained a stock of 12,000 elephants in his army.

There is a profusion of elephant images in the sculptures of all the ancient and famous temples of Khajurao, Ajanta Elora, Badami & Pattadakal, Belur/Halebid, Hampi, Tanjore and many other temples in the south.
Elephants, even today are maintained by a lot of Hindu temples, especially in the south. Gurvayur in Kerala maintains several temple elephants which are used in religious processions. The pageant of the caparisoned elephants in the world famous Mysore Dussera is an annual feature that still continues to attract large number of visitors from abroad.
Elephants were the prized possessions of the Indian kings throughout the history of India. They were an integral part of their pomp and pageantry. The Mauryan kingdom maintained a large elephant army of about 9,000 elephants. The passion of the Hindu kings for elephants was passed on to the Muslim rulers who maintained large elephant stables or pil-khanas. The Moguls captured a large number of elephants both for their armies and their sports hunt. Jehangir (1605-1627 AD) reputedly maintained a stock of 12,000 elephants in his army.

THE DECIMATION

“There was a strange conjunction between wilderness and civilization in these elephants. One moment we saw them as living monuments to the past and symbols of the vanishing forests. The next they evoked visions of the pomp of kings and emperors, and of docile beasts of burden hauling logs out of forests, ironically assisting the destruction of their home. They seem lost between two worlds” –

George B. Schaller in the Foreword to Raman Sukumar’s book “Elephant Days & nights”.

The elephant has been around in India for a considerable amount of time, right from mid-Pliocene, for nearly four million years. Now, they face a precarious existence and a possible extinction in not too distant a future.

Demand for ivory, combined with habitat loss from human settlement, has led to a dramatic decline in elephant populations in the last few decades. In 1930, there were between 5 and 10 million African elephants. By 1979, there were 1.3 million. In 1989, when they were added to the international list of the most endangered species, there were about 600,000 remaining, less than one percent of their original number.Asian elephants were never as abundant as their African cousins, and today they are even more endangered than African elephants. At the turn of the century, there were an estimated 200,000 Asian elephants. Today there are probably no more than 35,000 to 40,000 left in the wild and Indian population is now around 25,000 animals.

By the end of the tenth century, the wild elephant had disappeared from most of the northern Indo-gangetic plains, the river valleys in the southern peninsula, and the coastal tract. The distribution of wild elephant seems to have remained largely unchanged at the end of the Mogul rule, until the middle of the nineteenth century. One population extended along the Himalayan foothills into the hills of the northeast, another large population roamed over the Western Ghats and tracts of the Eastern Ghats, while a third smaller population was confined to primarily Orissa and Bihar.
During the nineteenth century, the British penetrated the hill forests and began cultivating tea and coffee on a large scale. Capturing combined with the clearance of the elephant’s jungle for plantation became a powerful depletion force. They also helped decimate the wild elephant population in these tracts through their sport of hunting ‘big game’. The killing of elephant for sport had not been part of the Indian ethos. One British planter is reputed to have shot about 300 elephants, most of them cows and calves, in the Wyanad district of Kerala. Some of the Indian rules of the princely states in imitation of the colonial rulers, also began hunting elephants for sport. It is estimated that 30,000 to 50,000 elephants were captured or shot in India, largely in the northeast, during the period 1868 to 1980. This figure could be as high as 1,00,000 for Asia as a whole.
The country’s forests have shrunk by over 30% since independence in 1947. Dams have submerged river valleys in the forests , mines have stripped entire hill slopes bare and the burgeoning population has pushed further into the forests. The colonization of the terai moist forests along the Himalayan foothills has separated the elephant population of the northwest and the northeast. Poaching and killing of elephants by ivory hunters (In 1982 over a dozen elephants were shot in the Satyamangala division in Tamil Nadu) has been rampant and seems to continue unabated in spite of the government’s new ivory trade policy. In recent years, the man-animal conflict appears to be on the increase. The elephants raid fields and orchards doing a lot of damage to the crops, often turning violent. The reason for this conflict is very apparent. The fast reduction of their habitats and closing or blocking of their regular corridors has resulted into the elephant encroaching on human settlements that results into both man killing the animal and the animal attacking the man.

The Asian Elephant

Indian elephant, known with the scientific name of ‘Elephas maximus indicus’, is a subspecies of the Asian Elephant. It is mainly found in the Indian subcontinent, that to in the scrub forested areas. The other counties where Asian elephants are found include Bangladesh, Bhutan, Borneo, Cambodia, China, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Thailand, Sumatra, and Vietnam. Since Indian elephants are very huge and can trample all other creatures, they have no natural enemies. Even lions, hyenas, and tigers attack only the very young elephants and not adults.

Physical Traits

Asian elephants of the Indian subcontinent grow to a height of between 8 ft and 10 ft. Slightly smaller than the African elephant, they weigh as much as 7,000 to 11000 pounds. The feet of an Asian elephant are very large and broad, which enables it to balance its enormous weight quite easily. There are thick soles below the feet, which absorb shock and cushion legs, when the elephant walks and runs. Their length varies between 216 inches and 252 inches.
The huge and beautiful tusks of the Indian elephant only serve as the icing on the cake. These tusks are actually incisor teeth made up of ivory, which may grow up to 5 ft in length. The tusks are used by the elephants in digging for food, clearing debris, and carrying logs. The only other animal that has ivory tusks is the walrus.

Natural Habitat

Though Indian elephants are found everywhere, they prefer the scrub forests of India, with abundant food supply and shady areas. They do not stay at a particular place for more than a couple of days. One of the reasons for this is that their diet is very huge and they have to move to new areas to keep them supplied with food all the times. At times, you find Asian elephants roaming around in the Indian jungles. However, this is possible only if there is a there’s a meadow or open space (with grass) around. They also prefer muddy areas in summers, where they can cool off during the hot daytime.

Diet

Asian Elephant is herbivorous and survives on bamboo, berries, mangoes, bananas, shrubs, tree foliage, wood, apples, wild rice and coconuts. Only half of the food eaten by elephants is used by their body. Therefore, it is necessary for them to eat 330 and 350 pounds of food every day. Their diet also consists of approximately 22 to 30 gallons of water per day.

Behavior

The groups (herds) of elephants are matriarchal i.e., a female elephant leads the herd. Males remain isolated and rarely form groups. They usually join the herd only when the mating season approaches. The members of a herd make use of a number of gestures and sounds while communicating with each other. Their sense of commitment towards the other members of the group is very strong. A female elephant protects her young one very fiercely. In her absence, this responsibility comes in the hands of the other females of the herd.

Mating Behavior

Male elephants fight to establish rights over a female herd. Indian elephants reach maturity by the age of twelve. The gestation period is between 630 and 660 days and the number of offspring is only one. The baby elephant is known as calf and usually weighs between 200 and 250 pounds.

Senses

Indian elephants are highly intelligent creatures and have acute senses of hearing and smell. They have large ears and can hear even those sounds that other animals do not. However, elephants have poor vision and their small eyes can see only up to 60 ft. Even though they are huge, elephants can easily balance their weight on two legs, especially while reaching the leaves of a tree. Even their sense of smell and sense of taste is very delicate.

PROJECT ELEPHANT

Realising the indiscriminate slaughter that was taking place, the British in 1873 in Madras enacted the first law to prevent the rampant slaughter of the herds. Six years later, British India as a whole followed suit. But the so called legal killing and poaching continued.
By eighties it was clear as a day light that unless the government comes forward and try and save the animal its future was doomed. The estimated population of elephants in India had dropped to 15,000-18000 animals in 1980s. The Government of India launched the Project Elephant in 1992 to help save the elephant.

The project was predicated on the need to focus conservation action on the Asian Elephant and its habitat, which currently face a number of threats. The main threats included: a) Reduction and fragmentation of habitat and consequent isolation of populations into small and genetically unviable units; b) Conflicts between wild elephants and human populations, leading to loss of human life and property and retaliatory killing of wild elephants; c) Poaching of elephants for ivory and, in some parts of the country, for meat; d) Elephant mortality due to other causes, such as from transmission lines, rail lines, highways etc., passing through the elephant habitat and other natural causes such as floods; e) Inadequate finance, infra-structure and human resources for proper implementation of management priorities at the field level. Project Elephant differs from other wildlife conservation projects such as Project Tiger in that it covers not only the protected areas (national parks and sanctuaries) but also other areas, which constitute the habitat of the wild elephants such as reserved and protected forests and other habitats. The projects covers an area of approximately 60,000 sq kms in 12 states, namely, Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Karnataka, Kerala, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Orissa, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. Under Project Elephant, 11 elephant reserves have been identified in the country.

Since the launch of the Project Elephant there are indications of the population faring better.

Some of the positive impacts of the project are :

a) The Mahananda sanctuary in West Bengal today retains elephants throughout the year as against about one month annually at the beginning of the project. b) Elephants displaced from Tamil Nadu in 1985-86 have been accommodated in the forests of Andhra Pradesh and restricted to the Kaundinya sanctuary. c) Human-elephant conflict in Madhya Pradesh resulting from displaced elephants from Bihar has been specifically mitigated. d) Wild elephants straying towards Calcutta in South-West Bengal have been controlled. e) There is a downward trend in the loss of human life from human-elephant conflict in the states of Karnataka, West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh. The major areas of concern yet to be fully addressed under the project include : a) Inter-state co-ordination for succe-sful implementation of the project, particularly anti-poaching efforts. b) Rationalisation of human use of various habitats included within the elephant’s range of distribution. c) Problems arising out of displaced and disoriented elephants, resulting from habitat fragmentation and their population growth. d) Genetic isolation of certain populations and imbalance in the sex ratio. e) Control of poaching and illegal trade. These are some of the major priorities, in addition to the on-going efforts which the project seeks to address in the coming years.

The elephant is considered a symbol of fertility, wealth and abundance. The status of the elephant is a good indicator of the health of the habitat. A habitat which is good for elephants is also good not only for its associate species like sambar, cheetal, kakar but also for predators such as panthers and tigers. The habitat will also have to be flora-rich to support animal biodiversity. When the forest is good for all these animals, the eco-system is in good condition, which means the water regime is right and so also the condition of the soil. Because the elephant requires a much larger home range than any other terrestrial animal, it is usually one of the forest species which has to suffer the consequences of habitat fragmentation and destruction. The historical and present day distribution of the elephant in the Indian sub-continent is in many ways a record of the progressive deterioration of the environment in the sub-continent.

References: Elephant Days & Nights by Raman Sukumar, India’s Wildlife History by Mahesh Rangarajan, Wikipedia.


MY BLOG LIBRARY
For some of my earlier aricles, please visit:
http://mohanpaiblogger.blogspot.com/
http://mohanpaisarticles.blogspot.com/
http://biodiversity-mohanpai.blogspot.com/
http://delhigreens.com/2008/03/10/whither-the-wilderness/
For some key chapters from my book ‘The Wetern Ghats’, please log on to:
http://westernghats-paimohan.blogspot.com/
For detailed blog (6 Chapters) on Mahadayi/Mandovi River Valley, please log on to:
http://mohan-pai.blogspot.com/
For the book ‘The Elderly’ please log on to:
http://oldagecare-paimohan.blogspot.com/
 

 Pic bi:V. Ramnarayana

The Asian Elephant
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