Ivory ghosts: How the human population explosion is threatening the Indian elephant's survival

Last May, I travelled through the last surviving tracts of Southern India's tropical forests in search of that quintessential Indian mammal, the elephant. May is the seasonal end of a long, dry period and the elephants come up from the valleys and baked planes of the Deccan to the immense bamboo groves and leafy deciduous forests of the hills. And here, they can be seen wallowing in the remaining cool lakes; and slaking their thirst in man-made reservoirs.

Once, pachyderms roamed in profusion throughout India and much of the rest of Asia. But now, these intelligent, adaptable creatures are critically endangered, their existence as tenuous as that of the tiger.

Of the estimated 44,000 Asian elephants, 26,000 live in India [2002 Indian elephant census] and 9,000 of these, the planet's largest single population, are in the south's Nilgiri and Eastern Ghat hills.

Elephants survive in such numbers in India both because of their enormous cultural importance and the deep, enduring affection with which many still regard them. In thousands of Hindu temples from the Himalayas to Kerala, benevolent, pot bellied, elephant headed-Ganesh is worshipped and adored. And elephant cavalry have been the backbone of every princely state's army. But these same beasts of war were also pampered pets, the darlings of potentates – the subject of poems and songs,of expensive paintings and miniatures, and fed on specially prepared food.

And the tradition of adoration continues. When I stayed at Tusker Trails, the old hunting lodge of the Maharaja's of Mysore – now a wildlife lodge – I swam in a pool the shape of an elephant's footprint and met three adolescent elephants – wild orphans, benevolently adopted by the present Maharaja's daughter. Bales of lush green sugar cane arrived frequently for their delectation, and their departure to the forest with their personal mahouts was frequently delayed by adoring guests (including myself) who flocked to their side to feed them sweetmeats and caress their thick rough skin.

But even with this iconic and beloved status, the elephants are not safe. Their numbers declined by up to 9 per cent from 2001 to 2002. As we drove through the thick jungles I asked Dr Ari Chelliya, who has been studying elephants in the field for more than 20 years, what he felt were the principal threats to their survival.

He replied without hesitation, "Humanity's exploitation of the elephants' habitat and the rise in human-elephant conflict which that brings, followed by poaching for ivory, which has recently assumed menacing proportions."

In a land where the human population has exploded from 350 million to more than one billion in 60 years, space is at a premium. And elephants need a great deal of it. Just one lone elephant eats 200 kilos of grass (including bamboo) fruit, twigs, and flowers; drinks 200 litres of water every day and needs a home range of over 200sq km. In 2007, the elephants compete directly with over 500 million people for both territory and forest produce.

Many rural people now farm, often illegally where only a few years ago ancient forests grew. One 6,000-acre forest in the Deccan, supposedly protected, is now being clear cut, burnt and its wildlife poached mercilessly by village farmers. According to the Deccan Herald, one family alone has taken 130 acres. And the Forest Department simply looks on.

Besides depriving the elephants of land, without which, like the beleaguered orang-utan, they will perish, the constant inroads create a patchwork of farm, village and forest. Bananas and sugar cane grow luxuriantly in the south and are a favourite crop of subsistence farmers. When the elephants are forced to live next to such delicious food, inevitably crop raiding occurs and just as inevitably there are fatal casualties, on both sides.

I went with Dr Chelliya, who works with the Asian Nature Conservation Foundation [ANCF] to find solutions to this conflict, to Ramballi, a small crop subsistence settlement inside Wyanad Wildlife Sanctuary, Kerala. Here ANCF's strategy had been to surround the village and its crop fields with a solar powered electric fence, to keep the elephants at bay. So why were there breaks in the fence, and weeds curling around the wire?

Answer, when ANCF had paid a villager to maintain the fence everything went well. When ANCF explained that they could not afford to pay for maintenance the villagers refused to do the work.

Like so many other rural people, the villagers feel nothing for the elephants. They see them as their enemies. And they want them gone. "They're your elephants," they told Dr Chelliya, "and if you don't want us to kill them, you must pay to maintain the fence."

Ironically, villagers often electrocute elephants by wiring the solar fences to main overhead powerlines. Three were killed by this method in southern India's Kollegal forest in May alone. ANCF are now paying the Ramballi villagers to excavate an elephant-proof trench around the settlement – but these too, require maintenance.

As we left, Dr Chelliya turned to me and said: "If nothing else, we have helped the Wyanad elephants survive for a few more years than they would have done without the fence."

Patchwork forest and farmland also block traditional routes that elephants take to meet other clan families, and create populations of elephants stranded in forest islands. This leads to inbreeding and prevents elephants from recolonising territories in which their numbers are declining. The effect is exacerbated large-scale ivory poaching.

In Asia, unlike Africa, only males carry tusks, so poaching leads to extremely skewed population demographics. In Thekkady, Kerala, there is only one male to one hundred females – in the wild the ratio would be one to three. Unless a corridor to them can be opened, the Thekkady population is doomed.

In a fragmented landscape, corridors are key in keeping elephant populations healthy and stable – and here, ANCF is having notable successes. Traditionally, elephant family groups of between 30 and 50 travelled from one side of the south's massive Deccan plain to the other. But their route, increasingly, is blocked. In one place I visited, Kaniyanpura, it had, until recently been a tiny 50-metre gap with a dizzyingly sheer rocky gorge to the left and human-owned land to the right. For a family of mammals, each weighing between 2.5 and 4.5 tons, this is frighteningly constricting, emotionally stressful and redolent with the possibility of human-elephant conflict.

Now, thanks to Karnataka's Forest Department acting on ANCF's advice and buying back land, the corridor is 300 metres wide – sufficient for the elephants to safely travel their ancient route. And other corridor-widening initiatives are in progress, one, much needed, in Kollegal forest, where the three pachyderms were electrocuted.

Will the elephants survive? Dr Chelliya hopes that this year's elephant census will see a stabilisation of the elephant population due to the efforts of ANCF and other NGOs. But, in the end, their survival depends on whether humanity values them enough to end the exploitation of their forest lands and to stop buying ivory trinkets – antique or modern.

Gentle giants

* The Asian elephant is more closely related to the now extinct Mammoth than to the African elephant.

* Morphological and biochemical evidence indicates that manatees, dugongs, and hyraxes are the elephant's closest living relative.

* The trunk is a union of nose and upper lip and has more than 100,000 muscle units.

* Asian elephants only have one finger at the tip of their trunk. The African elephant has two.

* Trunks can get very heavy and elephants often rest them on their tusks.

* Elephants can recognise themselves in a mirror, one of the tests that scientists agree demonstrates self-awareness.

* When grazing, elephants pull the grass from the ground and beat it against their front leg to remove dust and mud.

* Elephants defecate 14-18 times a day. They pass 5-6 boluses of 1 to 1.5 kilos each time.

* Elephant dung is essentially pulped fibrous matter and is ideal for making beautiful hand made paper. The coarseness of the paper is dependent on the elephants' diet.

* Chris Ofili, an artist who creates his work using elephant dung, won the £20,000 Turner Prize in 1998.

* Scientists in the Netherlands have discovered a fungus in elephant dung that will help them break down fibres and wood into biofuel.

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