An Asian elephant bull in Bandipur National Park, 2005. Photo: Yathin S. Krishnappa/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0
- India marked World Elephant Day on August 12 this year by notifying the Agasthyamalai Elephant Reserve – the country’s 32nd, according to a press release.
- But declaring a new elephant reserve means nothing when it comes to mining interests – nor does it mean much for India’s Asian elephants.
- Elephant reserves in India don’t promise greater standards of protection of elephant habitats because they are not recognised under any law.
- As a result, governments easily divert elephant reserves and corridors for various projects, although mining and linear infra projects are especially destructive.
- The environment ministry is yet to implement several expert committees’ recommendations, and India has been consistently underfunding Project Elephant.
- Another fact that leaves elephant reserves vulnerable to being degraded is that there is no clarity in the number of elephant reserves in India.
India marked World Elephant Day on August 12 this year by notifying the Agasthyamalai Elephant Reserve in Tamil Nadu. According to an official press release, the new reserve will be the 32nd of its kind in the country.
The notification prompted celebration in the media, where commentators called it a shot in the arm for Project Elephant, India’s flagship conservation program for these animals.
India is home to almost 60% of the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) population, occupying 76,508 sq. km, with the Agasthyamalai reserve adding 1,197 sq. km more. Is this cause for celebration? Perhaps superficially – because looking beyond these numbers reveals that yet another reserve is only of marginal benefit to the elephants.
Do elephant reserves serve elephant conservation?
Elephant reserves in India don’t promise greater standards of protection of elephant habitats because they are not recognised under any law. And with no law to protect them, the degradation and fragmentation of reserves could threaten the survival of elephants there. A February 2019 study predicted that the distribution of elephants in India will shift as they could lose 41.8% of their habitat by the end of this century, due to the combined effects of anthropogenic pressure and land-use change.
According to the Wildlife (Protection) Act (WLPA) 1972, a ‘protected area’ can be one of a ‘national park’, a ‘wildlife sanctuary’, a ‘conservation reserve’ or a ‘community reserve’. In the eyes of the law, an elephant reserve is no different from forest land or revenue land. The activities that are prohibited in protected areas – including mining, oil- and gas-drilling, dams, etc. – are permissible in an elephant reserve.
As a result, governments can divert elephant reserves and corridors for various projects. In 2010, India declared elephants to be a “national heritage animal”, acknowledging its ecological sensitivity, but did nothing to give it legal sanctity. Conservationists anticipated an amendment to the WLPA to accommodate elephant reserves in 2020, after an environment ministry proposal to this effect. But the latest amendment passed on August 2, 2022, by the Lok Sabha didn’t have any such addition.
Challenges to conserving elephants
Elephant conservation in India is governed under Project Elephant, which turned 30 this year. The Union environment ministry launched it in 1992 to provide financial and technical support to manage wild elephant populations, their habitats and corridors, to address human-elephant conflicts, and to monitor poaching.
In 2019, the elephant cell under Project Elephant formed a committee to prepare a ‘National Elephant Action Plan’, to frame time-bound strategies and action plans to manage and conserve elephants. The action plan is still not ready.
Along with that, on World Elephant Day 2020, the Indian government launched a national portal called ‘Surakshya’ to collect real-time information on human-elephant conflicts. Like the action plan, the portal is still not active.
The environment ministry also formed an elephant task force (ETF) in 2010 to examine existing elephant conservation policies and to formulate policy interventions.
The ETF released a report in August that year with its recommendations. One of them was to accord elephant reserves the status of being ‘ecologically sensitive areas’ under the Environmental (Protection) Act 1986. The ETF also recommended establishing a better governance model by amending the WLPA to close loopholes and forming a ‘National Elephant Conservation Authority’.
The government has implemented none of these recommendations for an ostensible lack of funds for Project Elephant. Project Elephant’s budgetary allocation has remained around Rs 30-35 crore on average for several years now. The Rs 35 crore allocated in FY 2022-2023 is effectively just Rs 1.09 crore per year per reserve, whose average size is 2,400 sq.km.
With such a paltry sum of money and no legal protection, elephant reserves serve no effective purpose other than sustain a façade that India is conserving elephants.
Even the compensatory afforestation funds have a direct mandate to promote afforestation and can thus be used to restore or revive degraded elephant corridors.
Consequences of the absence of a legal statute
Due to their large food requirements, elephants’ migration ranges typically span 500-800 sq. km. So it is essential to maintain connectivity between reserves – otherwise the elephant populations there won’t be viable.
Irrational diversion of land from elephant reserves, including for mining and illegal fencing, and for railway lines, roads, transmission lines and canals, have led to the fragmentation of elephant migration routes.
Critical elephant habitats, such as Dehing Patkai in Assam, are threatened by rampant and illegal coal-mining for the Tikok and the Tirap collieries by Coal India Ltd. For the Tikak colliery, the government cleared 58% (57.2 ha) of the total forest land required even when the lease had expired in 2003.
Later, to make matters worse, the standing committee of the National Board of Wildlife (SC-NBWL) recommended the project for post facto clearance – thus legalising an already fragmenting mining area and the remaining non-broken forest area of 41.39 hectares in 2019.
The decision was met with sizeable public protests, which forced the government to suspend the operation of both mines in 2020. Operations in the Tikok mine resumed in 2022 – even though the SC-NBWL hadn’t made any decision to that effect. The Tirap mine is expected to restart in a few months.
Prime elephant habitats like the Hasdeo Aranya in Chhattisgarh and the Talabira in Odisha have also been ravaged by the mining industry.
The recently notified Lemru Elephant Reserve in Hasdeo Aranya Chetra, spread over 1,995.48 sq. km, continues to be threatened by existing and new mining interests. It hosts a 2,301.26-ha open-cast coal mine in the Tara coal block and the Haldibari underground mine spread over 205.6 ha in Madhya Pradesh and 120 ha in Chhattisgarh.
Earlier the Indian government had proposed 41 new coal mines for auction in Hasdeo Aranya, but has since temporarily left out 39 due to pressure from conservationists.
The point, ultimately, is that declaring a new elephant reserve means nothing when it comes to mining interests – nor does it mean much for Asian elephants. Mining proposals regularly and clearly mention in their applications that these areas are part of elephant reserves, yet the government approves them anyway.
Mines aren’t the only problem, even if the mining industry’s practices are illustrative. Recently, the SC-NBWL approved the expansion of H-K road in Tirap district in Arunachal Pradesh. The project will require 28.8 ha of forests to be cut in South Arunachal elephant reserve.
The road is also 400-550 m from the Dehing Patkai Wildlife elephant reserve of Assam, and will hinder the movement of elephants between the two reserves. The road project has counter-proposed a “canopy walkways or bridges” for the elephants.
There is another proposal to widen NH 215 (renamed as NH 520) in Keonjhar district of Odisha. It passes through the mineral-bearing districts of Keonjhar and Sundargarh – as well as the proposed Baitarani Elephant Reserve, which the state government never notified.
The area serves as a passage for elephants between the Mayurbhanj and the Sambalpur elephant reserves, as well as between the elephants of Jharkhand and Sambalpur reserve.
Denotifying existing reserves, delaying new ones
Even though India’s elephant reserves have no legal protection, governments have been doing away with even the notional protection afforded to reserves per se.
In November 2020, the Uttarakhand wildlife board denotified the Shivalik Elephant Reserve to expand the Jolly Grant airport in Dehradun. The reserve lies in the Kansaro-Barkot elephant corridor, which connects the elephants of the Kansrau range in Rajaji Tiger Reserve with those of the Barkote and the Rishikesh ranges of Dehradun forest division.
The Shivalik Elephant Reserve is a sensitive landscape and home to more than 2,000 elephants (6.9% of India’s elephant population). The state wildlife board offered bizarre arguments in its defence, including that the “number of elephants was higher than the standard carrying capacity” of the area and that elephant reserves have “no legal sanctity” in any state or central legislation.
Later, prompted by a stay order issued by the Uttarakhand high court, the government followed suit to block the board’s denotification decision.
Another fact that leaves elephant reserves vulnerable to being degraded is that there is no clarity in the number of elephant reserves in India. Even states with elephant populations have failed to provide details on their reserves to the environment ministry, which sought this information in January 2021.
According to the Press Information Bureau, there were 32 reserves after the notification of the Agasthyamalai reserve. But a 2021 report by WWF India reported 33 elephant reserves.
The 2010 ETF report listed 32 reserves in that year. This included five reserves approved by the Indian government but not notified by the state government and two reserves pending notification of extension by the state. So far, only the Lemru Elephant Reserve from this list has been notified.
The recently notified Singphan, Dandeli and Agasthyamalai reserves weren’t part of the list in the ETF report.
As a result, the actual number seems to be 28 notified elephant reserves.
Elephant corridors have the same problem. For example, the Odisha government decided to notify 14 elephant corridors in 2007 – but they are still pending notification due to pressure from the mining industry.
The eastern zonal bench of the National Green Tribunal directed the Odisha government to notify these 14 corridors identified within two months of its order – i.e. by October 2021. But the Odisha government is yet to notify these corridors.
It should be clear that India’s elephant reserves have no legal protection nor much protection in any other form. To reverse this, the Indian government needs to notify elephant reserves under either the WLPA or the Environment (Protection) Act 1986. There must be restrictions on destructive activities and an absolute prohibition on others.
Second, any decision to protect India’s elephants must also be accompanied by considerable financial support. Elephants need large areas in which to move around; protecting such large landscapes needs both money and political will. Today, we have neither.
The government and some conservation groups may rejoice at the declaration of a new elephant reserve – but for the elephants of Agasthyamalai and in the other 31 reserves, it matters little. The threat to their habitats will only increase in the coming days.
Tanvi Sharma is an associate analyst at the Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment (LIFE).