By Anand Parthasarathy
April 12, 2023: On April 7, President Murmu was in the Kaziranga National Park in Assam to inaugurate Gaj Utsav 2023, the annual festival in honour of the elephant.
The occasion also market the completion of thirty years of Project Elephant, the Indian initiative to provide technical and financial support to the states in efforts to manage and nurture their free-ranging populations of the Asian Elephant.
The President used the occasion to highlight the problem of human-animal conflict and said “a barrier created in the natural habitat or movement of elephants is the root cause. Therefore, the responsibility of this conflict lies with human society.”
Elephant corridors must be kept free from all man-made obstructions to facilitate their free movement, she added. It was a timely caution – even as the southern states (home to 44% of India’s elephants, with the largest number, just over 6000 in Karnataka) joined by Maharashtra, announced that they would carry out an elephant census starting end May 2023. Assam with an estimated elephant population of over 5700 elephants according to the last census undertaken nearly 6 years ago, has not announced its own counting exercise
Such a census across all 16 Indian states with elephant population is crucial if the true impact of Project Elephant is to be understood. Over the last 4-5 years, there has been a heightened awareness that the ingress of wild elephant herds into villages bordering their natural habitat or accidents involving elephants hit by trains in regions where railway tracks cut through forest areas, speak poorly of our wild animal management systems.
A year ago, Project Elephant, along with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), brought out a very useful “Field Manual for Avoiding Human-Elephant Conflict” (Full text here). This has now created a uniform template for civic and forest management agencies to deal humanely and scientifically with such episodes whenever they happen.
But on the sound principle that prevention is better than cure, many states and agencies like the Railways and the CSIR, have proactively created protocols and techniques to drastically reduce if not totally eliminate such Elephant-Man encounters.
Using tech to track elephant movement
With so many roads and railway lines passing through forested areas, some even slicing through designated wild life reserves, preventing accidents to man or beast presents a technological challenge that has seen some innovative indigenous solutions, some promising works in progress
-The Central Scientific Instruments Organisation ( CSIO), an institution under the umbrella of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in partnership with WWF and WWI has been working on two technologies which together help create an “Intelligent System for Elephant Movement Detection”: Seismic sensors embedded in the ground near railway tracks to pick up vibrations from a moving elephant, coupled with thermal imaging cameras mounted on masts to visually track elephant movement during day or night, using Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning to enhance the image and recognize signatures specific to an elephant. Field trials of the two systems – EleSeisAlert and EleThermAlert – have been carried out in sections of the Rajaji National Park in Dehra Dun where rail lines pass, using domesticated elephants to identify and classify the signals.
-The Tamil Nadu forest department and Indian Railways have jointly identified a 13 km stretch of forest in the Madhukkarai areas of Coimbatore district and the Walayar forest on the Kerala border as most vulnerable to elephants straying on to railway tracks. They have put out a bid seeking companies who can offer an Artificial Intelligence-based to detect elephant movements in three zones red, orange and yellow, of 50 metres each around the track. Acoustic hooters as well as light-based signals placed on towers will alert forest guards as well as the nearest station master, if an elephant enters the zones.
-Tamil Nadu forest officials are also working with their counterparts in Palakkad, Kerala as well as with Railways, to explore the installation of thermal imaging cameras and possibly operating drones to track elephant movements in the border areas between the two states. This initiative is said to have been triggered by the frequent death of elephant families including females and juveniles due to hits by trains in this forest area– and the complaints filed by concerned citizens to the National Green Tribunal, seeking better safety protocols.
-In Odisha’s Keonjhar forest region, drones with thermal imaging cameras have already been harnessed to monitor elephant movements and behaviour, since late 2022.
-In Assam, home to India’s second largest elephant population, 11 elephant corridors have been identified and are being monitored in a novel way using existing infrastructure: Optical fibre-based cables run alongside the train tracks to provide communications between railway stations. When elephants pass nearby, there are variations in the optical signal caused by the vibration of the earth. The Northeast Frontier Railway uses AI to detect these signal changes and correlate them with elephant movement, to feed into an intrusion alarm system that alerts the drivers of trains.
-You are never too young to innovate: Last year an environment- focussed programme on CNN featured Seema Lokhandwala, a young computer scientist -turned-conservationist who founded the Elephant Acoustics Project – using acoustics to understand animals. She described an elephant call detector which can detect an elephant from its sound – then emit a sound that turn the animal away.
Elephants intrude into villages bordering on their grazing grounds, when such grounds are invaded by human activity or run dry of water. Such encounters where elephant herds destroy cultivated fields or even harm humans, occur too often to be ignored. Experts caution against development that encroaches on land that has traditionally served as animal habitat.
The ongoing saga of Arikomban
But incidents like the ongoing saga of Arikomban, the rogue tusker accompanied by a cow and two caves, has reportedly rampaged through villages in the Chinnakanal forest of the Idukki district of Kerala, point to the continued friction when Man encounters Elephant. It went all the way to a division bench of the Kerala High Court which rejected the Kerala government’s suggestion to capture the animal. It constituted an expert committee which suggested the elephant be tranquilised, then relocated to the Parambikulam reserve forest in neighbouring Palakkad district. A satellite-based GPS tracker that the court ordered fitted to the animal is awaited from Assam. Arikomban’s name, a combo of ari (rice) and komban ( tusker), was bestowed by locals due to his habit of raiding ration shops in search of rice.
Local MPs and MLAs are challenging the decision as are tribals in the designated new refuge, who fear Arikomban and family will continue their destructive ways in their home. It is reported that a review petition has been filed. The Court asked the forest department pertinently, why it had acquiesced in allowing humans to settle in what was a reserve forest and elephant habitat 23 years ago and was now seeking to capture the creature because it was putting the intruding humans in danger.
Writes Dr P.S.Easa, former scientist with the Kerala Forest Research Institute, Peechi and a committed conservationist: “There are problems of developmental projects leading to the loss or fragmentation of habitat and, in some cases, disturbance to the (elephant) population. It could be mines in Central India, the traditional practice of shifting cultivation in North east and Central India or Akhand shikar (traditional mass hunting for herbivores) in Central India and highways and other linear structures in the whole of the country.” His paper “The Asian Elephant: Distribution and conservation Challenges” (contribution in “Environment and Society: The India Challenge”, IndiaTech Books & Media 2013) is one of the most detailed resources available on the challenges facing the elephant, across Asia, with special emphasis on India.
Solving the problem of captive elephants
One challenge that civilisation poses to the elephant, arises from its domestication. But regulation in India has eliminated the worst abuses.
The 2008 “Guidelines for Care and Management of Captive Elephants” issued by the central government, specifies the limited use to which they can be put to carry loads or howdahs for passengers in hilly areas.
Since 2013, elephants joined the list of animals banned in circuses after a landmark 1998 judgment of the Kerala High Court by Justice Narayana Kurup which banned bears, monkeys, panthers, tigers and lions.
But one usage, which troubles animal lovers is the extensive use of elephants as part of temple procession or ritual. The irony is apparent in a state like Kerala which boasts a very large number of ana premis or elephant lovers who know every temple elephant by its name, assiduously celebrate each of its birthdays and erect monuments when they pass away. Yet they shut their eyes to the cruelty implicit in using large number of elephants purely for ritual, where they are subjected to deafening noise and the intrusive presence of thousands of humans, over many hours.
Well known Kerala-based playback singer Chitra Iyer who is the founder of Society for Elephant Welfare (SEW) has written recently to the state’s Chief Minister drawing his attention to plight of elephants in temples where they don’t have adequate water to drink or bathe ( an elephant needs to drink about 250 litres of water a day).
She writes that many temple ponds have been converted for ‘development’. Unlike the Kerala Captive Elephants (Management and Maintenance) Rules, 2003, the Tamil Nadu Captive Elephants (Management and Maintenance) Rules, 2011, contains strict regulations for the care of elephants, including provisions for bathing and the training of mahouts. “I urge you to consider amending the Kerala Rules, to include a provision that temples without a bathing pool should be restrained from parading elephants. This condition, would go a long way in ensuring the welfare of captive elephants in Kerala”, writes Chitra.
There are some concessions in place like requiring a veterinary doctor to certify the elephant’s health and to supervise lengthy rituals like the Thrissur Pooram. But reform has hardly touched ritual to any serious degree in Kerala
In a neighbouring state, the tide of public opinion is slowly turning away from such misuse of animals – with the judiciary in the vanguard.
In a key judgment of the Madras High Court last month, Justice GR Swaminathan of the Madurai Bench ordered that no private individual or religious institution should newly acquire elephants. “The time has now come to take a call if all such elephants now in captivity (both temples and privately owned) should be shifted to Government Rehabilitation Camps”, he wrote.
But things can change – even in Kerala: Earlier this year, the management of the Irinjadapilly Sree Krishna Temple in Thrissur district, decided to stop using live animals for its rituals. Instead, the temple uses a robotic elephant, stunningly real, as it shakes its head or flaps its ears, that was donated by People ForEthical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Weighing 800 kg and 3.3 metres tall Robotic “Raman” cost Rs 5 lakhs and PETA received private donations from Malayalam film actress Parvathi Thiruvothu. The organization has promised a robot elephant to any temple that decides to stop using live elephants. The support of celebrities and this high-tech inducement may yet see the tide turn for temple elephants. ( View the PETA video of the robotic elephant here).
Concludes Dr Easa in his seminal 2013 study: “There seems to be a recovery of the elephant population (thanks to) the protection measures adopted by the Forest departments, the vigilance of the NGOs and the fear of the strict laws. An integrated approach, alone would help in conservation of an animal, which needs extensive disturbance-free areas for long term survival.”
A decade later we can add another enabler: technology.
A shorter version of this article appeared in Swarajya Mag online yesterday
Images for this article can be found here