Laws alone cannot protect elephants from humans. What's required is a working relationship between the two species, says environment historian Mahesh Rangarajan

“It is the realm with many elephants in its forests that will be truly most secure”- Someswara, about eight centuries ago – From Report of The Elephant Task Force

“The elephant can be a symbol of a larger Meta shift in human-Nnature relationship. Any such journey begins with small steps, but it also needs joining of hands, hearts and minds,” says environment historian Mahesh Rangarajan who headed the Elephant Task Force constituted by the Ministry of Environment and Forests in February 2010. The Task Force submitted its report, ‘Gajah: Securing the Future for Elephants in India', in August 2010. On its recommendation, the Centre declared the elephant as the National Heritage Animal. The steps suggested to safeguard the welfare of this magnificent animal cannot come at a better time when there are increasing conflicts between elephants and humans. The relationship between elephants and humans in India is complex and unique. Sixty per cent of Asian wild elephants are found in the country — there are said to be around 26,000 wild elephants and nearly 3,500 captive. The report of the ETF is comprehensive and deals with all aspects concerning the well-being of the elephant — from securing landscapes for them to inculcating compassion for those captive.

“I have been keen on wildlife ever since I can recall,”, says Rangarajan, who is Professor of History, University of Delhi. After graduation, he received a Rhodes scholarship and did BA and MA in Modern History from Balliol College, Oxford. He has served in the Forest Advisory Committee since 2008. He has taught environmental history and conservation in universities in India and abroad. Rangarajan, who has written several books on politics as well history of wildlife conservation, is also a well-known psephologist and political commentator.

In this interview, he talks about what needs to be done for the well-being of the elephant. Excerpts:

In what way will the elephant being declared the National Heritage Animal help it flourish?

It will raise awareness about its specific needs and serve as a flagship for reconciling culture and Nature.

What problems do you foresee in the implementation of the report of the task force?

There needs to be a great deal of coordination, and especially so of measures to secure key habitats and to mitigate conflict. In all respects, the proposed National Elephant Conservation Authority at the apex, and the committees at the Reserve-level, will give a sense of direction that has mostly been lacking.

The Forest Department has to change its mindset, while scientists and other knowledge bearers have to come up with workable solutions. Simply having ‘no go' zones will not be enough. They are a must, but not sufficient.

There are frequent reports of elephant-human conflict. What are the prime factors to be considered in trying to resolve this?

Most of all, there needs to be regular hearings twice a year — sowing and harvest time — with the new Rs. 3 lakh compensation for loss of life. While no human life can ever be made up for, at least this will aid families in economic terms.

Innovative methods such as grain for grain, and collective farmer-maintained fencing need to be expanded. These are far more preferable than simply building barriers. Institutions need to be more open and responsive, and in turn, elected representatives should be part of the hearings and committees to ensure accountability.

How much has development affected the situation of elephants?

Significantly. Securing the 88 corridors from large projects is vital, as these link together populations that will otherwise get isolated and in future in-breed.

Menace of poachers, securing habitat — which of these needs priority?

Poaching for ivory is more under control than in the 1990s, though its long-term impacts due to highly skewed sex ratios will be felt for long. Habitat protection and also helping mitigate the human-elephant conflict, both through preventive and pro-active measures, is a top priority.

Should we draw from the way elephants have been conserved elsewhere in the world?

There is much to be drawn from elsewhere especially in the ways in which science can aid design of interventions. But we in India too have much to offer, especially on how to combine sensitivity to elephants with compassion for humans who live in proximity to them. The comparisons of Africa / Asia will not help beyond a point. The Asian species are more threatened by habitat loss than ivory trade, and have also been depleted in the past by live capture.

The future of elephants in the country depends on political will or stronger support from the public, or strict implementation of laws?

We need a working relationship with elephants as a species as they are also close to human beings in terms of emotional intelligence and social life. For this, what is crucial is the way in which science, culture and citizen come together to minimise conflict and keep viable habitats intact.

More In: Metroplus | Features