Environment ministry seeks legal status for elephant reserve, states ask for the draft
The Union environment ministry has proposed an amendment to the Wildlife Protection Act to protect elephant reserves and corridors on the lines of those of the tiger and sought responses of states to a proposed Comprehensive National Elephant Action Plan (NEAP), officials aware of the matter said. State forest departments have been asked to come up with management plans and provide forest staff and strategies to protect elephants, they added.
The Wildlife Protection Act bars mining and industrial activity around tiger reserves. It says boundaries of tiger reserves cannot be changed unless the National Board of Wildlife approves them. The law provides statutory status to the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA). NTCA is the regulatory body for around 50 tiger reserves with around six percent of the country’s total wildlife and also home to around one-third of the protected species.
With the amendment, the ministry proposes to have a similar legal framework for 30 elephant reserves across 15 states and statutory status to Project Elephant for the protection of the species. India has about 30,000 elephants, which account for 60% of the Asian elephant population.
DS Srivastava, a former member of Project Elephant’s steering committee, said they have been fighting for legal status to elephant reserves for over a decade but no state was ready for this. “Once the legal right is given, several restrictions would come in place. Then, the states will not be able to allow mining and other activities in these areas, which could cause huge monetary loss to state exchequers.”
Prajna Panda, the national coordinator of the ministry’s Elephant Cell, said India has no action plan whereas countries like Bangladesh and Nepal have much smaller elephant populations but have developed their own action plans. Panda added a committee formed in 2019 held its first meeting for NEAP.
An amendment to the Wildlife Protection Act to provide elephants legal status similar to tigers is among the committee’s suggestions.
Jharkhand’s chief conservator of forest (wildlife), Vishwa Nath Shah, who attended the meeting, said, “We are studying it. Besides, we are also evaluating the status of the elephant reserve in Jharkhand.”
Shah said they do not know in which form the legal status would be introduced. “Until a legal framework is [finalised]... it will be too early to say anything.”
West Bengal forest minister Rajib Banerjee said they have taken several steps to protect elephants. “We will respond to the proposed changes in the law when the draft is presented.”
The rising human-elephant conflicts and loss of habitats and corridors are other key issues discussed with states for the action plan. Officials said they want coordinated efforts to reduce human-animal conflict through mitigation works in elephant corridors.
The government told Parliament last week that elephants killed 2,300 people from 2015 to 2019. The number is 10 times the people killed by tigers. Also, 400 elephants have been killed or poisoned as a result of conflict with humans.
Raman Sukumar, an elephant expert, backed the proposal for legal status to elephant reserves. He said states need to ensure that the elephants stay within the reserves and do not stray outside in search of food and water to reduce the conflict. “The states also need to remove hurdles from the elephant corridors. If necessary, some elephants can be relocated to reserves having lesser elephant populations.”
The first meeting for the action plan was held with forest officials from the south zone on September 15. “Various issues related to mitigating man-elephant conflict are being discussed,” said Panda. Panda added it has been decided that instead of state-specific plans, the national plan would include division or region-specific plans as the country’s elephant population is concentrated in four zones.
India’s first elephant reserve was created in Jharkhand in 2001 as part of Project Elephant. Spread over 4,529 square kilometers, it had around 280 elephants, as per a 2017 census.