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The tragedy of the diminishing elephants

Maneka Sanjay Gandhi

The recent deaths of elephants in Kerala by homemade bombs, and in Chhattisgarh by poisoning their waterholes, have brought this gentle, useful creature into focus. There is no doubt that elephants in India are dying rapidly and they have no saviours. The case that has been lying unheard before Supreme Court for seven years would have saved thousands of lives, but the Hon’ble Court, which saw fit to rule in the Jalikattu case with extraordinary speed, has not found time to save this species.

Elephants die when their corridors of movement break up. Their herds divide, they lose their waterholes and trees. They come into the fields and are poisoned and shot by villagers who have taken their lands. They are captured by forest departments and beaten to death. There are less than 20,000 elephants left in India and less than 800 tuskers. In one week alone we have lost eight, of which two were tuskers. And yet we continue to kill them. Kerala and Odisha top the list with dozens of deaths each year. In Odisha, they die by being run down by the railways and beaten by the forest department. The railways have killed hundreds of elephants over the years. In Kerala they kill them by thrashing and starving them and parading them in the hot sun till they fall and die. So many young elephants, below 20 years of age, die while being made to stand stretched out for months chained to posts. A large number in Kerala are insured and then drowned, or given gangrene with rusty nails deliberately. Many of these elephants are not from Kerala itself. They are illegally captured from the jungles of Assam and then sold to private owners in Kerala. Now Chhattisgarh, with six elephants killed recently (68 have been killed since 2018), is heading towards the top of the list, with villagers deliberating pouring pesticides into ponds – a move that will kill all wildlife and probably other humans as well.

Within ten years we will have no elephants left.

Then you will see the fallout.

The elephant helps disperse seeds to far away locations and creates tropical forests. Trees depend on their eaters for seed dispersal, as the seeds pass through their guts and come out undigested with dung and germinate when conditions are right. And only seeds that are carried far from their parent trees germinate.

Just as Mauritius had to change its entire commerce and culture 300 years ago when the dodos became extinct, Indians will be very strongly affected as the elephants diminish in number. “As go the elephants, so go the trees.” That’s the message of a study, published in the May issue of Forest Ecology and Management, which found that more than a dozen elephant-dependent tree species suffered catastrophic population declines after elephants were eradicated from their ecosystems. The fruit-bearing trees all rely on forest elephants as their primary means of seed distribution, a process known as mega faunal dispersal syndrome. The study was conducted in Salonga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a region where more than 98 per cent of the elephants have been killed by poachers over the past few decades.

Elephants play two key roles for many of these trees. They roam over large swathes of land, spreading seeds far and wide via their dung. Research has shown that seeds that have been softened by an elephant’s stomach acids germinate much faster than other seeds. Over decades, fruit trees have formed exclusive partnerships with elephants, and if they go there are no other dispersal partners for these species to ensure reproduction. The loss of these elephant dependent trees has wide-ranging ecological effects, as they feed herbivores and frugivores such as bats, birds, insects and other mammals who rely on them and will disappear if the trees disappear. In short, a cascade of falling ecological cards, each loss making our lives that much more difficult.

Many of these trees have long been used for traditional medicine. Not enough research has been done to reveal their secrets to modern science and they will be long gone before we realise the value of their medicines. For instance, the bael (Aegle marmelos) and its cousin, the kaitha, are the only trees that cure gastric ulcers. Bael fruits are also used in the treatment of chronic diarrhoea, dysentery, asthma, jaundice, anaemia and diabetes. That is one of the many trees we will lose in the wild. Another is the dillenia indica or the elephant apple or chalta tree. Local people have barely any access to Western medicine. They rely on traditional use of plants, such as these trees that have not yet revealed all their secrets to modern science.

Many plants species will be affected if elephants are wiped out from the forest. Researchers have shown that the seed dispersed by elephants make new plants grow and creates forest. Under normal conditions just a fraction of seeds, less than 15 per cent, turns into mature trees, but seeds digested by elephants are 50 per cent more likely to start growing. A few of the trees affected by the disappearance of elephants are the families of: Fabaceae, Malvaceae, Sapotaceae, Poaceae, Moraceae, and Euphorbiaceae.

In the African savannas, such as the Serengeti plains in Tanzania, elephants are a keystone species. Elephants eat shrubs and small trees, such as acacia, that grow on the savanna. This feeding behaviour keeps the Savanna, a grassland, and not a forest or woodland. With elephants controlling the tree population, grasses thrive and sustain grazing animals such as antelopes, wildebeests, and zebras. Smaller animals, such as mice and shrews, burrow in the warm, dry soil of a savanna. Predators such as lions and hyenas depend on the savanna for prey.

Elephants leave behind a path of destruction by creating corridors through woodlands and digging deep holes in the dry riverbeds, but both actions are highly beneficial. Corridors prevent the spread of wildfires, and deep holes collect water for other animals. They are vital distributors of seeds from the balanite tree, which is used as famine food in some regions of Africa.

Mine is the last generation that will see elephants in the wild. You, who were born after 2000, will see the odd lonely chained creature in the zoo, or the temple, waiting patiently for its death.

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