A message from The Elephant Whisperers
To protect India’s national heritage animal, government departments must join hands and implement the framework that an elephant expert task force prescribed in 2010
Animal babies ooze irresistible cuteness. Baby elephants are adorable. And an orphaned baby animal can trigger a flood of emotions. Look no further than Kartiki Gonsalves’ heart-warming directorial debut, The Elephant Whisperers. This Oscar-winning short documentary is an evocative tale of a bond between an orphaned baby elephant and an aged caregiver couple in an elephant camp run by the forest department in Tamil Nadu. The short documentary won an Oscar the week after three elephants in the state’s Dharmapuri district were electrocuted. In a video posted on social media, two calves were seen standing next to the departed mother and aunts, refusing to leave the place of the accident.
Such heartbreaking visuals with elephants are increasingly getting commonplace. The Dharmapuri incident was caused by a farmer who built a crude electric fence (crude or not, they’re illegal) to protect his harvest from raiding wild boars at night. But elephants, too, move through human-dominated rural landscapes at night. The consequences, in this case, were tragic.
Raghu, the infant elephant in the short documentary, also lost his parents to electrocution. He was abandoned by the herd, for he was too weak to carry on. Young Raghu got lucky with the Tamil Nadu forest department’s swift rescue and the devotion of his foster parents, Bellie and Bomman, both from the Kattunayakan community, a forest tribe known for training and bonding with elephants at the Theppakadu Elephant Camp, Mudumalai Tiger Reserve. But there are several young ones like Raghu who are not so lucky.
In February, a Right to Information query by Sagnik Sengupta, co-founder of Stripes And Green Earth Foundation, revealed 630 elephant deaths due to electrocution between 2012-13 and 2022-23. Assam tops the list with 120 such deaths, Odisha is at 106, followed by Tamil Nadu (89). These official numbers are above and beyond what elephant experts offer as guesstimates — around 45-50 elephants die due to electrocution every year.
On Sunday, Biswajit Mohanty, author and Odisha-based former National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) member, posted a photograph of a fallen tusker from Ostapal village, Dhenkanal district. Mohanty has been highly vocal about the state of elephants in Odisha, where they are the casualties of either poaching or electrocution. “We are the elephant graveyard of India with the highest death rate of elephants,” he emphasises. According to Odisha’s forest and environment minister PK Amat’s statement in the state assembly last month, 245 elephants were killed between 2019 and 2022.
Today India is better lit at night than a decade back. Nasa’s ‘Night time luminosity’ maps are now a part of the Economic Survey (2021-22). Chapter 11 is about tracking new development through satellite imagery and cartography — a new parameter to showcase economic progress through nighttime lights. India is sparkling at night more than ever before, with over a 40% jump in electrification in a decade. However, as electricity and development reach the hinterland, it has come at a cost to natural heritage. In addition, the overhead sagging of live wires is a life threat to wildlife. In 2019, NBWL suggested to the power ministry to replace existing power transmission lines with insulated cables or underground cables on a priority basis to reduce wildlife mortality.
Elephants can’t be confined to national parks and wildlife sanctuaries. They are giant nomads and follow ancient routes passed down through generational genes. Many of these routes are now occupied by us, leaving them little space to manoeuvre. While forest connectivity is critical for conserving large mammalian species, such as elephants, the wild spaces continue shrinking for our development needs. For example, last month, a mobile video clip from Haridwar showed how an elephant herd with calves was caught struggling to negotiate the concrete maze of a rapidly growing city that had eaten into their traditional foraging pathways. Haridwar is on the fringes of Rajaji National Park, the northwestern limit of the distribution of elephants in India. Similarly, there are videos from Guwahati’s outskirts; on the city’s eastern fringes is the Amchang Wildlife Sanctuary and elephants have been caught on camera entering buildings, crawling through doorways, checking out the swing in a children’s park — not because they want to but because these lie where their path once did.
The Asian elephant population in India is estimated to be between 27,000 and 30,000. But, unknown to many, more elephants live outside national parks and wildlife sanctuaries. Around 70 to 80% of the elephant population is outside protected areas. And human-elephant conflict is a growing concern in the country. In West Bengal, Kerala, Assam, Odisha and Tamil Nadu, the conservation situation has reached a boiling point. Here unlike captive elephants, the wild elephant is not a loved animal, ironically, even when one worships the elephant-headed god at home. No district administration is happy managing wild elephants, which are now habituated to crops as wild feeds have been reduced or altered due to the climate crisis. And there are no easy answers on how to manage wild elephant populations, which some experts say have been increasing despite a skewed gender ratio. There are talks on immunocontraception, viable and non-viable elephant populations, and murmurs about culling.
Much like humans, elephants are known to be a family-oriented, sensitive and intelligent species. Imagine the trauma, stress and psychology of a baby losing a parent or constantly growing up around death and violence (human-elephant conflict). Imagine a new generation of elephants growing up in this hostile atmosphere.
Recommendations from the Elephant Task Force report, Gajah: Securing the Future for Elephants in India (2010), have remained on paper. The only one executed was designating the Asian elephant as the national heritage animal of India. This week experts from all elephant-range countries will talk shop at the 11th Asian Elephant Specialist Group members meeting in India. A grand Gaj Utsav is planned in Kaziranga (April 6-7). But will this be enough to save the elephant? The Elephant Whisperers sends a clear message about the urgent need for convergence between government departments to protect our national heritage animal and implement the actionable and progressive framework that the task force experts prescribed.
Ananda Banerjee is an author, artist and wildlife conservationist The views expressed are personal