We are appealing for your immediate help to protect South India’s last significant herds of Wild Elephants! Please take a few moments to familiarize yourselves with the predicament of these magnificent animals!
Recent estimates of the number of Asian elephants (Elephus maximus) remaining in the wild range from 35,000 at the low end to 50,000 at the upper end. Asian elephants once ranged throughout most of Asia, but their habitat has been reduced to isolated fragments, often with boundaries that restrict traditional migrations and gene flow.
This expanding human settlement/wildland interface has lead to increased pressure on populations due to human-elephant conflicts ranging from poaching to crop-raiding and roadkills. The distribution of Asian elephant populations in India is well known but population estimates, ranging from 26,000 to 31,000 are up to 14 years out of date and many are based on less than rigorous data collection. Also, effective population sizes are lower due to selective poaching of males for ivory.
Elephant populations in most ranges are thought to be declining due to a combination of factors, the main ones being habitat loss due to expanding human settlement, increasing resource demands, and habitat fragmentation. Habitat fragmentation leads to the isolation of populations, and for wide-ranging animals, it may result in several isolated populations that are too small to be viable. Furthermore, inbreeding depression can exacerbate loss of genetic viability due to small population size, eventually leading to population extinction.
For these reasons it is imperative that immediate efforts be focused towards protecting known key populations and creating corridors that can facilitate animal migration and gene flow.
Long-term conservation of elephants must include conservation of large contiguous wildlands. Elephants are a far-ranging species with large nutritional requirements, which utilize a variety of habitats including forests, shrublands/savannas, and grasslands.
In South India, the continuous elephant range extending from the Brahmagiri Hills, south through the Nilgiri Hills, and east through the Eastern Ghats is one of 14 out of Asia’s 59 known elephant ranges containing wildland area large enough to support substantial elephant populations.
This 12,000 sq. km area, spanning three states (Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala) is thought to house 6,300 elephants, the largest remaining population of Asian elephants in the world. The contiguity of the region’s forest habitat is not maintained by the patchwork of protected areas, and the range has become highly fragmented.
The Nagarhole, Bandipur, Wynaad, and Mudumalai protected areas and the adjacent Nilgiri North Division have been identified as one of the four most important zones within this range for long-term conservation of elephants, due to its relatively intact habitat and large elephant population. These four parks and their adjoining Reserve Forests cover over 3300 sq. km of forest and support a population of 1800-2300 elephants.
The Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve encloses this entire region. However the Sigur Plateau, on the east side of the Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary in Tamil Nadu state, which serves as the link between the Eastern and Western Ghats for migrating elephants, remains largely unprotected as a buffer zone. In addition to elephants, tigers, panthers, wild dogs, gaur, hyenas, and several other large mammals also live in the forests of the Sigur plateau. The conservation of this critical elephant habitat would not only serve to protect one of the largest Asian elephant populations, but would also benefit the entire ecosystem, including other rare species.
There are seven settlements on the Sigur plateau, and six identified corridors used by elephants for movement and habitat that wind between their widening footprints, Reserved Forests (RFs), and the steep slopes of the Nilgiri hills to the south and those of the Moyar Gorge to the north.
Most of these settlements were historically established along rivers and are now enclosed within Revenue Land boundaries.
As their size has increased along with population growth (mainly due to hydroelectric construction projects), development, agriculture and tourism, village lands have expanded to form a near-continuous boundary between the Sigur plateau’s RFs, leaving only narrow corridors. Animal movement and access to surface water is now largely prevented by human-made barriers such as electric fencing and agricultural activities.
The need for protection of these corridors was identified decades ago and has since been replicated in numerous studies. Consequently, several attempts have been made to have Sigur’s RFs included in the sanctuary.
However, the Tamil Nadu Forest Department has yet to move on such recommendations. Under the current intense level of development, these corridors could be lost in the very near future. Consequently, the carrying capacity of the protected area network will be diminished and local elephant populations, without access to water, are likely to disappear.
All of the elephant corridors are suffering from varying levels of degradation due to their proximity to settled areas. Corridor width between settlements varies from only 400-1000m. These corridors can be secured by the protection and restoration of forested areas within Revenue Lands that are in proximity to the corridors, which amount to about 400 ha or 10 sq. kms.
One of the major issues is extensive grazing in protected areas, including parks, by thousands of cattle kept by villagers to produce truckloads of dung, much of which is sold to organic coffee plantations in Kerala for use as fertilizer.
An integral facet of elephant conservation is to solve the dilemma of alternative livelihood requirements for villagers and tribals living in proximity to wildlife habitat. Unregulated, unplanned wildlife tourism in Sigur has also become a large part of the problem.
The most seemingly insurmountable obstacle to the protection of the elephants is, quite tragically, rampant bureaucratic inertia. South India’s final wildlife refugia are screaming out for a single lead agency, with the power to command and coordinate the myriad interjurisdictional bureacracies that are complicating this simple conservation project.
Additional major threats include:
o Pressure from local reliance on cattle dung as a source of income,
o Pressure from local reliance on fuelwood gathered from the forests,
o Ivory poaching continues with virtual impunity throughout the area,
o A massive increase of unregulated “eco-tourism” safari development,
o Corruption and mismanagement by government officials,
o Pressure to construct 10 kms. of highway through the Sigur Forest, which will immediately result in a large traffic flow through the forest,
o Accumulated scientific research data is jealously guarded by a select few elephant scientists who compete for lucrative project funding.
We are appealing to you to PLEASE immediately write to the Government of India, to DEMAND that they get serious about protecting South India’s wild elephants!
Priorities are in the following order:
1) ESTABLISH A SINGLE LEAD AGENCY WITH SUFFICIENT POWER AND RESPONSIBILITY TO COMMAND AND COORDINATE THE CONSERVATION EFFORT
2) IMMEDIATELY SECURE THE KNOWN ELEPHANT CORRIDORS IN THE AREA AROUND MASINAGUDI, TAMIL NADU
3) RAISE THE STANDARD OF PROTECTION IN ALL RESERVED FORESTS THAT CONTAIN VIABLE ELEPHANT HABITAT
4) A PERMANENT MORATORIUM ON ANY FURTHER ROAD DEVELOPMENT IN THE SIGUR RESERVED FOREST
5) IMMEDIATE INSTIGATION OF INITIATIVES FOR CATTLE-TENDERS AND TRIBALS TO ENCOURAGE WILDLIFE-CONGRUOUS LIVELIHOOD ACTIVITIES
India’s wild elephants are in serious trouble and they need your help!
Here is how you can help!
Please click on this following link to the “Ecological Internet,” read the backgrounder and endorse the sign-on letter. The letter will then be automatically sent out to hundreds of government officials, media, elephant scientists, ENGO’s and business which have ‘interests’ in these magnificent wild animals.
Let them know that the world is watching!
Ingmar Lee is a Canadian writer currently living in Pondicherry, India. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Krista Roessingh is a Canadian Commonwealth scholar completing an MSc. in India. She can be reached at email@example.com