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Elephants: The Gentle Giants

by Jigyas Boruah


Photo: Udayan Borthakur


From time immemorial, different stories and beliefs about elephants can be seen in Indian religion and folklore. The most recognizable and arguably the most loved figure in Indian religion and folklore is Ganesha, the elephant-headed god. The elephant itself has a divine ancestry according to Hindu mythology, which attributes its creation to the Lord of Creation, Brahma. The Vedas (1500-600 BCE), and the epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata (1100-700 BCE), are perhaps the earliest texts dealing with the elephant in India. Ancient Indian texts, such as the Gajasastram and the Hastiayurveda, dealt with the protection and welfare of the elephant while treatises on statecraft such as the Arthashastra mentioned the setting up of Gajavanas or elephant preserves, the first ever protected-area systems in the country or perhaps in the world.


The image of elephants is deep rooted in our culture & traditional belief system.

Photo: Udayan Borthakur


Elephants also have an important place in Assamese culture and folklore. In Mahabharata, Bhagadatta, the son of Narakasura, the king of Kamrupa was mentioned as the best wielder of the elephant squad. His elephant’s name was Supratika. During the Ahom reign, under Bor Roja Ambika’s patronage, Hastividyarnava, a famous work on elephantry was composed by Sukumar Barkaith. Elephants were also found in Indian as well as Assamese ancient architecture. One of the most striking features of the Hayagriva Madhava Temple of the Monikut Hill is the continuous row of elephants akin to the stone-cut temple of Ellora. The Constituent Assembly of India adopted Elephant as a symbol of the Constituent Assembly. In 2010, Govt. of India declared the Indian elephant a National Heritage Animal of India.


At present, elephants are found only in two continents of the world – Asia and Africa. African elephants are the largest animals walking on the Earth. In Africa, two species of elephants are found, the Savanna (or bush) elephant and the forest elephant. The most striking characteristic of the African Elephant is both males and females have tusks. In contrast to African elephants, Asian elephants are relatively smaller in size, and the only male has tusks. A male without tusks is known as Makhna. There are four subspecies of Asian elephants – Indian, Sri Lankan, Sumatran, and Borneo.


In India, according to the 2017 Elephant census, Karnataka has the highest population of elephants and Assam secured the second position. As elephants are large herbivores and an adult elephant consumes about 240 kg of plant material over an 18-hour day, they move continuously from one place to another in search of food allowing the vegetation that they leave behind to regenerate in a natural cycle. They eat almost 59 species of woody plants and 23 grass species.


Though elephants have a significant place in our traditional, cultural, and belief systems, but, nowadays the negative interaction between humans and elephants is increasing. The main cause of this conflict is the loss of habitat. Anthropogenic activities such as deforestation, construction of linear infrastructure, monoculture plantations, mining, and overexploitation of forest resources are the major causes that lead to human-elephant conflicts in different parts of India as well as in Assam. Due to sinking habitat, they are not getting enough food, therefore, they come out from their natural habitat to human habitation in search of food and raid crops, damage houses, and in some cases threaten human life. In a report released by the Ministry of MoEFCC, it can be seen that between 2014 -2022, 3,938 human lives were lost to wild elephant attacks and in Assam, the number is 561. In contrast to humans, in this human-elephant conflict, several elephants also lost their lives. The main cause of the elephant's death is electrocution. In some cases, people who are in regular conflict with elephants also poison them.


Due to habitat loss and increasing conflict, the death of elephants is also increasing and their population is decreasing. IUCN declared them as Endangered. Elephants are considered as ecosystem engineers. They help to maintain the integrity of their forest and grassland habitats. Elephants are one of the most important components of an ecosystem. To protect nature and the environment, the protection of these Gentle Giants is also important. The Govt. of India conserves the elephants mainly through the centrally sponsored Project Elephant (1992). There are some renowned organizations such as WTI, WWF-India, ANCF, NCF, and Aaranyak also working for the protection of elephants.


A paddy field trampled by elephants.

Photo: Udayan Borthakur


To protect elephants and reduce human-elephant conflicts, the most important measure is to protect the remaining habitat legally and the protection of the ecological corridors. This can reduce contact with humans and provide them with their natural habitat and resources. To restrict them from entering into crop fields and households, solar fences, and agriculture-based deterrents such as Rich gourd cultivation, Chili cultivation, and Lemon cultivation can be used. Awareness among the fringe villages, villages which are affected mostly by this conflict can be used to aware people of how to coexist with elephants, and how to use different measures to reduce conflicts. The Forest department should ensure the timely release of compensation for the loss of crops, households, etc. Early warning systems such as GPS collaring can also help in conflict reduction.


Every organism on this earth has an equal right to live and use the resources needed to maintain a healthy life. With the increasing human population, the need for the resources is also increasing. But we should be calculative in using resources and should ensure that other living beings also get enough to survive. This is the time to think about how we coexist with elephants and reduce human-elephant conflict and how we can help them to flourish in this world.


Sources:

1. Indian Mammals

2. WWF- India


*Article first published in DownToEarth dated 19th June 2023.


About the Author:


Jigyas Boruah, an alumni of Department of Environmental Biology and Wildlife Sciences, Cotton University. He likes to be with nature and work for conservation of wildlife and their habitat.

You can reach him at jigyasboruah@gmail.com


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