India is home to about 30,000 elephants.(Shutterstock)
India is home to about 30,000 elephants.(Shutterstock)

Govt seeks legal status for elephant reserves

The Union environment ministry has proposed an amendment to the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 to accord legal status to elephant reserves and corridors on the lines of tiger reserves.
By Sanjoy Dey and Joydeep Thakur | Hindustan Times, Ranchi/Kolkata
UPDATED ON OCT 05, 2020 04:47 AM IST

The Union environment ministry has proposed an amendment to the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 to accord legal status to elephant reserves and corridors on the lines of tiger reserves. The ministry has sought responses from 10 elephant range state governments in south, east, north-west India on the proposed amendment and measures to mitigate human-animal conflict to prepare a comprehensive national elephant action plan, said environment ministry forest department officials of multiple states.

Under the Wildlife Protection Act, state forest departments have to prepare a tiger reserve management plan with an adequate number of forest staff and strategies in place to protect the big cats. The law also says that no mining or industrial activity will be allowed in the vicinity of the reserves and that their boundaries cannot be changed without approval from the National Board of Wildlife.

The law also gives legal status to the National Tiger Conservation Authority, the regulatory body for around 50 tiger reserves in India.

With the proposed amendment, the ministry proposes to have a similar legal framework for 30 elephant reserves across 15 states and statutory status for Project Elephant. India is home to about 30,000 elephants, or 60% of the global Asian elephant population.

Meetings are taking place to prepare an elephant action plan, confirmed Soumitra Dasgupta, inspector general of forest (wildlife), under the Union ministry of environment. He added that he isn’t, however, aware of an initiative to confer legal status on elephant reserves by amending the Wildlife Protection Act.

“They (elephant conservationists) have been fighting for legal status to elephant reserves for more than a decade. But no state is ready for this. Once the legal right is given, several restrictions would come into place,” said DS Srivastava, a former member of the steering committee of Project Elephant. “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.”

In 2019, a committee was formed to prepare a National Elephant Action Plan; it held its first meeting in November last year. The committee made several suggestions including the proposed amendment to the Wildlife Protection Act.

“Till date the country has no action plan, whereas countries such as Bangladesh and Nepal, which have a much smaller {elephant} population, have developed their own action plans,” said Prajna Panda, national coordinator of the union environment and forest ministry’s elephant cell.

Jharkhand’s chief conservator of forest (wildlife), Vishwa Nath Shah, who participated in the 2019 meeting, said: “We are studying it (the amendment). Besides, we are also evaluating the status of elephant reserves of Jharkhand.”

On the benefits that will come about by conferring legal status on elephant reserves, he said: “Actually, we still do not know in which form this legal status will be introduced. Until the legal framework is done, it will be too early to say anything.”

West Bengal forest minister Rajib Banerjee said several steps have been taken to protect elephants such as fencing elephant habitats and digging trenches to restrict the movement of elephants outside their habitats in south Bengal. “We will response to the proposed changes in law when the draft is presented,” he said.

Rising human-elephant conflict as elephants lose their traditional habitat and corridors is another key issue of discussion with states for the national action plan, officials said. The aim is to put in place a coordinated effort to reduce conflict through mitigation measures in elephant corridors.

According to data shared with the Lok Sabha on September 23, close to 2,300 people were killed by elephants in the past five years until 2019, which was 10 times the number killed by tigers. Also, 400 elephants were killed by poachers or through poisoning by local residents. The Lok Sabha reply revealed that at least 433 people have been killed across West Bengal between April 2014 and September 2019. In Odisha, Jharkhand and Chhattishgarh, the death toll was 447, 391 and 329, respectively, during the period.

Raman Sukumar, an elephant expert who has backed the proposal to provide legal status to elephant reserves, said that to reduce conflict, states need to ensure that the elephants stay within the elephant reserves and do not stray outside in search of food and water.

“The states also need to remove hurdles from the elephant corridors. If necessary, some elephants can be relocated to reserves having lesser elephant population,” he added.

The first meeting on the action plan was held with forest officials from south zone on September 15. The latest discussion was held with forest officials from the east-central region on September 22. “Various issues related to mitigating man-elephant conflict are being discussed,” Panda said.

The zones demarcated for the action plan are east-central, covering states such as Odisha, south Bengal, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Bihar, north Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh; north-east-south, which includes south Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka, and north-west zone, comprising Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand.

India’s first elephant reserve was created in Jharkhand in 2001 under Project Elephant. Spread over 4,529 square kilometers area, the Singhbhum Elephant Reserve in Kolhan division, which comprises three districts --east Singhbhum, west Singhbhum and Saraikela-Kharswan -- has around 280 elephants, according to the 2017 elephant census.

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