Asiatic elephant (Elephas maximus) is, unarguably, the most identified and photographed face among the incredible plethora of Indian wildlife. With an adult Asiatic elephant weighing up to 4-5 tonnes, this species is among the last few existing megafauna left on the planet. The notion of their high social and emotional intelligence has only been strengthened by emerging scientific studies that vouch for their grand capacity of self-awareness and self-recognition. These sentient, social mammals form structured and tightly-knit social groups comprising 6-7 females each, and are always led by the oldest female, the matriarch. Groups merge once in a while to form larger herds. Adult males, on the other hand, lead relatively solitary lives. It is only males among the Asiatic elephants who possess long tusks and hence the moniker ‘tuskers’ is often attributed to them. Some females and males do possess short tusks. The multi-faceted trunk on an elephant that is used for everything from drinking water to touching and sounding of warnings is known to be made up of about 40,000 muscles. To put things into perspective, a whole human body possesses about 600 muscles. Asian elephants, like their cousins the African elephants, undergo a gestation period of 18-22 months, the longest among mammals!
Today, the range of the Asiatic elephant is spread across south and Southeast Asia, with India harbouring more than half of the world’s remaining elephant population that is believed to be fewer than 50,000 individuals. As per India’s latest elephant population estimation of 2017, there are known to be about 27,000 individuals present in the country. But, despite India being home to the largest population of wild Asiatic elephants, these gentle giants live an increasingly strained existence here. Rapid and unchecked habitat loss and poaching are the two biggest threats facing these pachyderms that have rendered the species to be classified as Endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). But, another deadly threat has emerged in India as a result of ballooning human population, shrinking and fragmenting elephant habitat due to human activities, growing proximity between people and elephants, and disruption of elephant migratory routes and corridors that are thinning on the verge of breaking and disrupting movement and population connectivity. Human-Elephant Conflict (HEC) has been identified as one of the most pressing and complex conservation issues of our time, mounting heavy losses for humans and elephants.
Elephants are truly and rightfully regarded as ‘Ecosystem Engineers, or more romantically, ‘Gardeners of Eden’. With every move an elephant makes: a step, a flick of the tail, a nudge of the trunk… it is shaping its ecosystem in expected and even unexpected ways. The scale of impact the elephants have on their natural surroundings is landscape-altering. Their sheer size helps to break canopy in parts of forests allowing sunlight to reach the lower storeys, paving the path for undergrowth plants to thrive. Several other herbivores find more accessible plants to browse and forage upon while also finding refuge. Their precious dung, upon hitting the forest floor and water bodies, transform and support myriad species, apart from introducing nutrients into the soil and water. The elephant dung also serves as food for the countless carrion-loving insects such as the dung beetle. Even the tracks of the Asiatic elephant that fill up with rain water are known to act as temporary breeding havens for several frog populations!
The need for immediate, strong and actionable conservation and protection solutions to save elephants and natural habitat from dwindling is being urgently felt. Improved and stricter wildlife law enforcement to combat poaching of elephants for the illegal wildlife trade is crucial. Asiatic elephant is accorded the highest level of protection in the country as per India’s Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. The Union government even established an Elephant Task Force (ETF) in 2010 for better conservation of elephants through improved policies and robust interventions. Going further back, Project Elephant was launched in 1992 by India’s environment ministry for improved wildlife management in the elephant range states. But, reality on the ground is very sombre, with little action being taken in lieu of the aforementioned grand policy gestures. Long-term and landscape level conservation interventions are the need of the hour to ensure revival of elephant populations and their forest habitats, and alleviate HEC. Mindful execution of developmental projects including linear infrastructure such as roads, railway lines, transmission lines etc. should be practiced so as to not fragment elephant habitat and erode connecting wildlife corridors any further. The prime importance of elephants in their ecosystems and our dependence on the services offered by these ecosystems need to be better understood and respected.