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The World | COLUMN ONE

India Has a Jumbo Problem

Competition for space between elephants and villagers can be deadly. A controversial effort to tame some pachyderms aims at scaring off herds.

June 23, 2003|Paul Watson | Times Staff Writer

BERO, India — It can take a month to break a wild elephant's will, and with every day he resists, thick ropes cut deeper into his leathery skin.

This captive is about 13 years old, still a kid. But he weighs more than 4 tons and can easily kill a man. His ivory tusks are a foot long, just enough for the struggling elephant to hook under one of the ropes that bind him to trees in a forestry officer's compound. When a sharp tug barely nudges the line running from his neck, the beast lets out a long, rumbling growl from deep in the pit of his stomach, and then a shorter one.

"He's crying," said Jogen Rabha, chief of the nine-man team that caught him. "He's missing his folks. We also feel bad, but we're just doing our duty. Once he's through all of his training, maybe in two or three years, he'll be part of our family. But not before that."

Rabha and his men chased down and lassoed the adolescent on state government orders because it was part of a herd terrorizing local villagers.

The competition for living space between more than 1 billion Indians and the country's estimated 28,000 Asian elephants often ends in violence. Their forest habitat is shrinking despite decades of conservation efforts, and when herds wander into villages to steal food or dip trunks in clay pots of homebrewed rice beer, people -- and elephants -- can get killed.

Just over 150 people died in elephant attacks in 2001, down from a peak of 203 a decade ago, according to the most recent official figures. India's government credits the decline to better management, but critics claim officials fudge the figures to protect their jobs.

The elephants damage 10,000 to 15,000 houses and 2 million to 2.5 million acres of crops each year throughout India. People, whether poachers armed with guns or angry villagers poisoning watering holes, kill about 200 elephants a year, by the official estimate.

By bringing Rabha's crew from Assam in northeast India, Jharkhand state is applying an ancient solution to a modern problem. But many villagers complain that capturing a few elephants to scare off the rest of the herd has no effect, and wildlife conservationists call it a cruel diversion from the crucial issue: the destruction of the elephants' habitat.

India's wild elephant population is spread across 18 states, but 85% is concentrated in the northeast and the south, where the Hindu majority reveres elephants as gods.

The country's elephant population grew by about 3,000 in the decade after the federal government launched a conservation effort called Project Elephant in 1992. But officials concede some of the most important ranges, and the herds roaming them, are shrinking because of farming, mining, illegal logging and guerrilla fighting.

Wildlife laws are poorly enforced and "the overall conservation scenario continues to be dismal," S.S. Bist, director of the federal government's Project Elephant, warned in a report last year.

Home to about 5,000 wild elephants, Assam lost 157 of them from 1998 to 2001, with almost two-thirds dying from interactions with humans, such as gunshots, poisoning, train collisions and accidental electrocution, according to state government figures.

"The elephant population continues to drop in the northeast," said Assamese wildlife conservationist Soumyadeep Datta, whose group Nature's Beckon has struggled for about 15 years to protect wild elephants. He says corrupt forestry officials undermine the effort by ignoring illegal logging and misusing conservation budgets, among other things.

"If the international community doesn't demand protection of the habitat, it will disappear, and the man-elephant conflict will grow further and further," Datta said.

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A herd of Asian elephants, which spends most of its day eating sugar cane, grass and tree bark and searching for water, typically needs at least 250 square miles for its home range. India lost more than 695 square miles of forest from 1991 to 1999, Bist wrote last year in the journal Indian Forester.

India banned the capture of elephants in 1972, but forestry officials can order them caught to control unruly herds. Although there are no figures on the number trapped each year, a Project Elephant survey in 2000 estimated there were up to 3,600 domesticated elephants. More than 40% work in the logging industry, using their powerful trunks to move felled timber, while others are used in religious ceremonies, agriculture, tourism, circuses and street begging, the survey found.

Rabha is a stern man who doesn't warm to outsiders easily. He is barefoot, in a cotton sarong and fading T-shirt that says "Surf's Up" above a map of the Hawaiian Islands. Rabha guesses he's about 40, but with graying hair and tired eyes, he looks at least 55.

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