Founder and CEO of Wildlife Trust of India, Vivek Menon speaks to Nibedita Saha about the progress India has made in the field of elephant conservation, and about the road ahead.
Q. How many active projects does the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) have for elephant conservation?
A. Currently, WTI has 17 running projects including short- and long-term ones. These range from projects focusing on rehabilitating orphaned elephant calves and reintroducing them back to the wild in Assam, to securing habitats for elephants and ensuring their right of passage through projects in Kerala, Karnataka, Uttarakhand, Assam and Meghalaya. WTI has also implemented around 90 short-term projects providing rapid aid to individuals, community-based organisations and even forest departments across India, to help address conservation threats related to elephants. Our Wildlife Crime Control team has also been assisting national and state wildlife crime enforcement authorities to prevent the poaching of elephants and illegal trade in ivory. To date we have trained and equipped over 16,000 forest staff in around 150 protected areas including key elephant habitats in south and Northeast India. Our team of lawyers is also assisting state forest department authorities to fight cases in court pertaining to wildlife crime, including cases against ivory traders. WTI has also rehabilitated 18 orphaned elephants and successfully released them back to the wild, in Manas National Park, and have also successfully reunited 19 elephant calves with their herds on site. In total, our team of vets has attended to 292 elephants both young and old and provided veterinary care where needed. Besides, WTI’s Wild Lands projects have helped in securing 40,822 hectares of land for elephant corridors, which provides connectivity to over 570,000 hectares of forest landscapes for elephants and other key species of wildlife sharing these habitats.
Q. How well are we addressing issues related to wildlife crime, like poaching and the illegal trade of elephant ivory?
A. As mentioned in my first point, WTI, through its Wildlife Crime Control division, has been combating issues like poaching and illegal trade in ivory for two decades. Our team has trained and equipped over 16,000 forest staff in around 150 protected areas thereby strengthening protection in elephant habitats across India. WTI has also assisted local enforcement authorities to stop poaching and trade of ivory. In 2015, our team provided vital technical and field support to the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau and the Kerala Forest Department to assist them in the seizure of 487 kg of ivory from Delhi. The team also assisted the authorities in arresting an ivory trade kingpin who was responsible for the above stock of ivory. WTI provided the technical and field support to the Kerala State Forest Department from the start of the investigation and also ensured legal support to the case through our expert lawyers to ensure pro-conservation judgments in this case. Some of the cases are still ongoing in Kerala.
Q. Gaj Yatra, the public event co-organised by the WTI, was conceptualised to create awareness of elephant conversation in India. Has the campaign served its purpose?
A. The key aim of the Gaj Yatra campaign is to move policy makers, media and the general masses, draw their attention to the cause and gather their support for elephant conservation. While the Gaj Mahotsav festival is a one-of-its-kind event being hosted to celebrate elephants as our National Heritage Animal, the treatment for the Yatra is different in elephant-range states. Those activities are on the lines of a journey, a Gaj Yatra through corridor locations, sensitising the public, policymakers and stakeholders to the elephants’ need for a safe passage. We have done this in Meghalaya and are embarking on Gaj Yatra in Kerala soon, before moving to other states. The campaign has been picking up pace over this past year and is serving its purpose in winning friends for the cause. We’re positive that the Gaj Mahotsav will help move key policymakers and media folk and contribute towards a few positive outcomes for elephants.
Q. This year, 101 artworks are being exhibited at the Gaj Mahotsav in Delhi, to raise consciousness about elephant conservation. To what extent do you think art can help the general public understand this social issue?
A. The 101 art pieces are the result of a joint effort from artists across the country, who were willing to join us and put their skills to work for the cause. The art pieces will go a long way to help bring to notice the issue at hand and the need to conserve elephants and their habitats. They will be on display at public places along with information on elephants and their conservation issues. This should help bring the issue to public attention. Change and acceptance for the cause is something which needs to be worked on consistently and can’t be done overnight. We have a team of sociologists and campaign officers in the field, who will continue working with local communities living near elephant habitats and local governments, and use the campaign messaging as a medium to help bring about this change.
Q. According to reports, every year around 500 people get killed by elephants across India. How are we planning to deal with cases of human-elephant conflict, which are now on the rise?
A. Yes, human-elephant conflict is on the rise and every year both human and elephant casualties are recorded in the country. Some methods like installing power fences, elephant-proof trenches and early warning systems are used commonly in human-elephant conflict (HEC) hotspots. WTI, through its conflict mitigation division, has worked with local communities to help them manage such situations in different parts of India. We have also helped set up Primary Response Teams in villages and equipped and trained these teams to help them manage conflict situations. This helps prevent loss of life and property if coordinated well. Since 2005, WTI has also provided over 60 tonnes of grain to around 500 families who lost their crop to elephants as part of our Grain For Grain scheme. The state governments also have compensation schemes in place for HEC victims, which helps prevent retaliatory killings. While these interventions are short-term or provide immediate relief, securing corridors for elephants and ensuring right of passage for these large mammals are the long-term solutions for human-elephant conflict and we should work towards achieving this goal.
Q. How important is it to construct wildlife corridors on our roads and highways?
A. While there are manmade wildlife corridors in the form of bridges or underpasses, the 101 elephant corridors we have identified are natural and narrow stretches of land connecting two fragmented patches of forest. As a result of increasing human population and the developmental activities surrounding this, wildlife habitats are shrinking by the day. This results in fragmentation of habitats, which turn into isolated patches of forests. Corridors are narrow stretches of forest which connect these fragmented habitats and help in ensuring connectivity for wildlife. WTI has been working with local communities and forest departments to secure these corridors to ensure safe passage for elephants and other species. There is an urgent need to secure these 101 corridors, and ensure they are protected, so the numbers do not increase further.