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Elephants in India: Status, Threats and Solutions [Mains Article]

Today only about 27,000 wild elephants remain in India, as opposed to a million a decade ago. There has been a 98 per cent decrease in their population. Conservation and welfare of elephants in India provides us with a critical lens to develop holistic policies that work both for humans as well as animals.
By IT's Mains Articles Team
August 15, 2019


  • Importance of Elephants in India
  • Census in Elephant Reserves (ER)
  • Declining population of Elephants
  • Reason for Decline in Population
  • Impact of human actions on elephant-human conflict
  • Contribution of ‘Wild SOS’ NGO
  • About Project Elephant
  • About The Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE) programme
  • Suggestions
  • Key Facts
  • Conclusion

Elephants in India: Status, Threats and Solutions

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Importance of Elephants in India

  • Elephants have enjoyed a special place in India’s culture and tradition. They were used as a means of transport for the royalties and to fight battles.


  • Most important is the status of elephant as a deity in the form of Lord Ganesha. For over 70 per cent of the people in the country, elephants hold a religious importance.
  • India is home to over 50 per cent population of Asian elephants in the world making it the last strong-hold of the species.
  • They also have the highest status in the Wildlife Protection Act of India, 1972, as Schedule-I species.

Census in Elephant Reserves (ER)

  • The all India enumeration of wild population of elephants in the country is carried out at every five-year interval.
  • The first exercise for enumeration of wild elephants in the ERs was done during in 2005. This exercise also sought to experiment with two sampling methods, viz. Block Sampling; and Line Transact-Dung Count (with Retrospective Method of Calculating Dung Decay Rate).
  • As per 2017’s census of elephants, India has 27,312 elephants accounting for 55 per cent of total world elephant population. Among all the states, Karnataka has highest number of elephants (6049) followed by Assam.

Declining population of Elephants


  • Today, only about 27,000 wild elephants remain in India, as opposed to a million a decade ago. There has been a 98 per cent decrease in the wild elephant population.
  • They face the threats such as shrinkage of their forest ranges, habitat defragmentation, poaching for their body parts and captivity, and anthropogenic pressure.
  • There are 2,454 captive elephants in India, according to the census conducted by Project Elephant in 2018.
  • However, this number is likely to decrease as the elephants will subsequently age and the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, forbids the capture of new calves to keep the captive elephant population afloat.

Reason for Decline in Population

Captive Elephants


  • Captivity of elephants is easily associated with the cultural history of India and is treated as an acceptable practice. However, in captivity, an elephant tends to face stressful conditions which greatly hampers their physical and mental well-being.
  • Unlike their African elephants, poaching of elephants for captivity is a serious threat to the survival of the species.
  • Captive elephants are routinely found to be suffering from health issues such as foot-rot, arthritis and compromised nutrition.
  • Breeding of elephants in captivity is extremely difficult, which means that capture of another elephant sustains this trade.

Veterinary aid

  • Access to veterinary aid is a rarity for most keepers as simple injuries can become chronic due to lack of treatment. Foot injuries, particularly, have the tendency of becoming fatal to elephants.

Impact of human actions on elephant-human conflict

Impact of human actions on elephant-human conflict

Loss of habitat or loss of access to habitat

  • Elephants require large swathes of forests to sustain their herds. However, shrinking forests means lesser availability of food, which incentivises the movement of elephants out of forested lands to crop lands.
  • Thus, they eat crops, which brings them into conflict with people. This ends in Human-elephant conflict (HEC).
  • Elephants prefer areas close to water sources and these areas are also preferred sites of human settlement resulting in the loss of prime habitat to elephants.

Habitat transformation

  • Elephant populations are likely to persist in areas where human settlement occurs within untransformed elephant habitat.
  • If the land transformation threshold exceeds 40-50% or about half the available habitat is lost and the rest is fragmented, elephants will be extirpated.
  • Frequent fires are an indicator of increased human activity. The use of fire by forest users causes profound changes in the habitat, drastically reducing the food availability to elephants.

Competition with humans for forest resources

  • Human use of resources such as cattle grazing, firewood collection and cattle pens within forests may degrade the habitat, reducing their ability to support elephant populations.
  • Bamboo, prime elephant fodder, has been largely overexploited in southern India reducing the carrying capacity of the habitat.

Poaching and retaliatory killings

  • As a result of poaching, the sex ratio of elephant populations is biased toward females in some states.
  • Farmers in areas where conflict with elephants is relatively common, may electrocute or poison elephants in retaliation.
  • Poaching negatively affects foraging behaviour, restricting access to critical parts of the range which results in nutritional stress. As a result of such disturbance, herds may tend to congregate in large numbers, thereby taking a toll on the habitat.

Contribution of ‘Wild SOS’ NGO

elephant-iastoppers Elephants in India: Status, Threats and Solutions

  • Wildlife SOS, established in 1995, started working with elephants in 2010 to save the species in India focussing on rescuing captive elephants that were facing severe abuse and cruelty by their captors.
  • In a first in the country, Wildlife SOS established an Elephant Conservation and Care Centre (2010) and an Elephant Hospital (2018) in Mathura, Uttar Pradesh.
  • It is also working to mitigate HEC in Mahasamund and Balodabazar, Chhattisgarh where a herd of elephants have taken permanent refuge in the nearby forested land.

About Project Elephant

  • Project Elephant was launched in 1992 to provide financial and technical support of wildlife management efforts by states for wild Asian Elephants.
  • It is a Centrally Sponsored Scheme of the Ministry of Environment and Forests.
  • Presently the Project is being implemented in 22 States/UTs.


  • To protect elephants, their habitat & corridors
  • To address issues of man-animal conflict
  • Welfare of captive elephants

About The Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE) programme

(MIKE) programme

  • The MIKE Programme was established by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) by Resolution 10.10 adopted at the tenth Conference of the Parties in 1997.
  • The objective of the MIKE is to identify trends in elephant mortalities by analysing data on elephant carcasses.
  • The duration of the programme is from May 2017 to December 2019.
  • There are currently 28 sites participating in the MIKE programme in Asia, distributed across 13 countries, in which India has 10 sites.


Elephant-human conflict mitigation measures fall under two categories: the short-term (tactical) ones that address the symptoms and the long-term (strategic) solutions that address the underlying cause.

Short-Term Methods

Traditional Methods

  • Traditional methods are devised by local communities and these include prayer, noise (shouting, beating drums, fire crackers), light (fire at entry points to fields), and stones.
  • Platforms on trees (machan) or huts at ground-level are used as look-outs.
  • Guarding involves several degrees of organization, from individual farmers guarding their own fields to groups of farmers guarding several fields cooperatively.

Early Warning

  • Trip wire alarms has a string fence with bottles, tin cans with pebbles and bells tied at frequent intervals. When an elephant pushes against the cord, it trips the switch, setting off the alarm.


  • The earliest known barrier against elephants may have been the network of earthen walls and ditches.
  • Barriers around forests prevent the natural dispersion of animals in response to overcrowding or compression.

The barriers could be in form of

  • Electric Fences
  • Elephant Proof Trenches (EPT)
  • Walls
  • Punji sticks
  • Covered trenches
  • Mechanical barriers

Experimental Methods

  • Bio-fence: Bio-fence having thorny plants such as agave and cacti have been tried in Sri Lanka and were found to be ineffective.
  • Habitat enrichment: Planting food trees in elephant habitat and corridors to augment resources available to elephants has been recommended. For instance, regenerate bamboo along stream courses another was to cultivating bananas. However, it is not practical to grow such crops over large areas.
  • Artificial water sources: Elephant distribution is influenced by the presence of surface water and rivers, and it has been suggested that manipulating water sources could influence elephant presence.
  • Chemicals: Chemicals such as Lithium chloride, quinine sulphate, chloroquine hydrochloride, tannic acid, pheromones, and animal scents have been suggested as mitigation measure of Human-elephant conflict but more research is needed.
  • Satellite telemetry: There have been attempts to track elephants using satellite collars in northern West Bengal. Based on the direction of the elephants’ movements, it is possible to predict if the animals are headed towards a village and to provide the inhabitants with advance information
  • Alternate livelihoods: Providing alternate livelihoods such as bee keeping have been suggested. While these may not solve conflict they may provide resilience to the affected communities.
  • Geo fence: Crop-eating elephants are collared with mobile phone SIM cards and a virtual “geofence” is set up. As soon as the elephant approaches the edge of this virtual fence, a text message is sent to a ranger who rushes to the spot to chase away the elephant.
  • Chilli: Chilli paste is mixed with engine oil/grease and smeared on ropes which are then tied around the perimeter of farms. However, burning chilli laced ropes to create a pungent smoke has limited practical use as it is dependent on the prevailing wind direction and dissipates quickly.

Methods used by Forest Departments

  • Scaring squads: During the crop raiding season, every division of the Forest Departments of West Bengal and Assam forms a squad to respond to calls from villages seeking help in chasing away elephants from the fields. These operations invariably take place at night and in immediate response to complaints.
  • Removal of elephants: Removal includes killing individuals, driving herds or bulls, and capturing a few select elephants from an area for domestication, and translocation.

Long Term Methods

Land-use planning

Some of the recommended land-use changes that address the spatial basis of conflict are

  • Reduce the conflict interface between elephants and people (restrict and consolidate human settlements and relocate agricultural activity within elephant habitat)
  • Make agriculture production more efficient (change location of fields, move to inedible crops, grow a diversity of crops, change cropping patterns)
  • Modify movement of problem elephants (secure safe passage of elephants, protect water sources, re-draw forest boundary)

Buffer zone

  • Under certain conditions, farms in close proximity to forests are the most affected by conflict.
  • Therefore, in these situations, the best defence against crop loss is having another farm along the forest boundary as a buffer.
  • However, this was considered unfeasible as there is no evidence that such buffer zones have an impact.

Protection of corridors

  • Securing corridors and movement routes allows elephants to use different parts of their home range without intruding into human-use areas.

Habitat protection and Forest Management

  • Since habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation are the root causes of the problem, they need to be addressed to provide long-term solution to conflict.
  • In cases where home ranges of elephants include Reserve Forests, they need to be managed as Elephant Conservation Areas.
  • Revenue Forests that include elephant home ranges need to be acquired and managed as Reserve Forests.

Offsetting the costs of conflict

These methods do not seek to reduce conflict but offset the resulting costs through other means while providing an incentive to maintain habitats for elephants.

  • Community-based Natural Resource Management (CBNRM): CBNRM is not only a mechanism for coping with losses caused by conflict but it also encourages social integration and empowerment.
  • Insurance: Insurance schemes may be a way to compensate losses sustained by communities. Insurance premiums can be divided between three parties: The Forest Department, the farmers and non-governmental organizations.
  • Willingness To Pay (WTP): If the community or farmers are paid for the abundance of elephants on their lands rather than compensated for their loss, it furthers the cause of elephant conservation by encouraging the maintenance of habitat.
  • Payment for Environmental Services (PES): PES compensates land owners for the loss of revenue incurred by not converting the land for any commercial land-use. Since conservation outside Protected Areas requires the cooperation of local communities, incentive based mechanisms such as PES, can encourage land-use practices that retain the integrity of the forest.
  • Avoided Deforestation (AD) or Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD): Under the AD scheme developing countries are paid to prevent deforestation while combatting climate change and improving the living standards of some of the poorest people.

Education to raise awareness

  • It is imperative that the causes of conflict are communicated to politicians and decision-makers as well as local communities.
  • They have to be made to understand that some level of conflict is inevitable and that no single method, including electric fences, is a solution.

Conservation Action Plan

  • A conservation action plan that prioritises populations based on their long-term viability (IUCN 2006) and recommends management action for small isolated populations is a necessity.
  • Elephant-human conflict mitigation policy should be an integral part of the national elephant conservation policy.

Key Facts

  • India is one of the 17 megadiverse countries of the world.
  • It is home to 7-8 per cent of the world’s recorded species, from top predators such as the Asiatic lions, Bengal tigers to large herbivores such as the Asian elephant and one-horned rhino.


  • With Human-elephant conflict (HEC) becoming a norm, learning to co-exist is the holistic strategy that will safeguard the future of elephants in India.
  • There is no single solution for arresting HEC. The effectiveness of any measure is dependent on the degree of desperation of the concerned elephants.
  • Conservation and welfare of elephants in India provides us with a critical lens to develop holistic policies that work both for humans as well as animals.


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