Keystone in Crisis

Text by Dr. Joyti P. Das

"We admire elephants in part because they demonstrate what we consider the finest human traits:

empathy, self-awareness, and social intelligence. But the way we treat them puts on display the very worst of human behavior." -Graydon Carter

Photo: Udayan Borthakur

The majestic Asian elephant, Elephas maximus, a keystone species is under considerable threat, almost everywhere. Currently the future of Asian elephant is bleak owing to human induced factors. The significance of the Asian elephant and the importance of its conservation was recognized by the Government of India in 1990 and few areas were declared as Elephant Reserves across the country. The concept of an 'Elephant Reserve’ differs in various ways from the much highlighted Tiger Reserve concept. Emphasis was given to managing these Reserves by maintaining the existing elephant corridors and allowing the animals free movement across large areas.

Large areas of intact contiguous forest are essential for elephants to move freely. Seasonal movement of elephant herds for food and space is a critical feature in their lifespan. Unfortunately, these areas are no longer available because of ever increasing human population. Connecting green way or corridors between traditional elephant habitats is the key in such circumstances. Properly maintained green ways will certainly facilitate free movement of herds and minimise their crop raiding tendency in the bordering human settlements. The concept of 'corridor viability' is a complex issue and depends the distance separating two small population. If the distance is less than 5 kilometers then the corridor need to be very broad. Just a 1 km wide corridor would be adequate for the elephants' movement. On the other hand if the distance is noticeably more, the width of corridor has to be about 4 kilometers. A green way may not be a very good habitat; it may be a monoculture plantation or even a degrade forest. The areas supporting elephant population should be large enough so that population viability is maintained and this will depend on the carrying capacity of the habitat. If one elephant needs an area of 5 km and a viable populationis 1000 elephants for long term survival, a total contiguous area of 5000 km should be reserved for them.

Photo: Udayan Borthakur

The immediate target is to prevent extinction over a relatively short period of time, say the next one or two