In August 2018, the honourable Supreme Court directed to close and seal resorts operating in corridors used by elephants in the Nilgiris. It was an applaudable move in order to protect the species whose livelihood depends on migratory corridors.
The National Heritage Animal of India, the creature that has inspired the worship of Lord Ganesha of the Hindus and which appeared to Maya of the Shakyas predicting the greatness of the Buddha, sadly needs an image makeover. And the Gaj Yatra, run in collaboration with Project Elephant, Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, and the International Fund for Animal Welfare, is a national celebration of this magnificent and ancient Indian being. It brings art, literature, science and innovation together to highlight the plight of elephants and point to solutions that would afford them their Right of Passage.
What are Elephant corridors?
Elephant corridors are narrow strips of land that connect two large habitats of elephants.
How Elephants walk:
Elephants have a way of walking that displays their incipient mood. They tramp through bamboo culms seeking tender relishes hidden amidst tangled clumps. They amble through lush grasslands, kicking a tuft every now and then, after the first monsoon rains have ensured a new carpet for them to feed on. A family group seems to saunter when at peace. A lone bull in musth, testosterone staining his face, strides up to his choice female with a rather more determined gait. Once his courtship is accepted, the two promenade languorously in between bouts of mating.
As the family crosses a road or a rail track there is a tentative air to the walk. The matriarch stops, then treads in slow, measured steps, watching and sensing movements and threats before venturing onto tar. The herd follows her instinctively and when the coast is clear and the matriarch has crossed, the family stumbles across in a sudden rush of frenzy. The rush lasts only till the cool earth on the other side is felt under their spongy pads. Almost instantly they slow, and if there is no threat, a little bit of comfort-feeding replaces the panic of a moment ago.
What necessitated the move?
Elephant herds are known to migrate across 350-500 sq. km. annually but increasingly fragmented landscapes are driving the giant mammals more frequently into human-dominated areas, giving rise to more man-animal conflicts, experts have found. Maintaining elephant corridors is therefore of crucial importance to both elephant and human habitats.
Weak regulation of ecotourism is severely impacting important habitats, and affecting animals that have large home ranges, like elephants.
Are migratory corridors important?
The movement of elephants is essential to ensure that their populations are genetically viable, and help regenerate forests on which other species, including tigers, depend.
Lawrence Anthony in "The Elephant Whisperer":
“Perhaps the most important lesson I learned is that there are no walls between humans and the elephants except those that we put up ourselves, and that until we allow not only elephants, but all living creatures their place in the sun, we can never be whole ourselves.”
Elephant corridors in India:
‘Right of Passage’, an 800-page study released in August 2017, authored by experts and published by the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) in collaboration with Project Elephant and the U.K.-based NGO Elephant Family, identifies and records details pertaining to 101 elephant corridors across India.
Of these 101 corridors, 28 are located in south India, 25 in central India, 23 in northeastern India, 14 in northern West Bengal and 11 in northwestern India.
In terms of their functionality or usage by elephants, almost 70% of the 101 corridors are regularly used, 25% are occasionally used, and 6% rarely. Almost all elephant corridors in south India (93%) and northern West Bengal (86%) are regularly used; 66% of corridors are regularly used in northeastern India.
Regional spread of elephant corridors in India:
Among the States, West Bengal has the highest number of corridors (14), followed by Tamil Nadu with 13 and Uttarakhand with 11.
The highest number of corridors are located in northern West Bengal, which has one corridor for every 150 sq. km. of available elephant habitat, resulting in heightened human animal conflict and an average of 48-50 human deaths every year.
This is followed by northwestern India, which has one corridor for every 500 sq. km. of available elephant habitat. Central India comes next with one corridor for every 840 sq. km.
In southern India, there is one corridor for every 1,410 sq. km. of available elephant habitat. Northeastern India fares best with one corridor for every 1,565 sq. km. There are an estimated 6,500 elephants in just the Brahmagiri-Nilgiris-Eastern Ghats ranges.
These migratory corridors hold reasons for ecological stability for the species as well as the surrounding areas.
Across the country, about 40% of elephant reserves are vulnerable, as they are not within protected parks and sanctuaries; and the corridors have no specific legal protection. Illegal structures in these pathways should be removed without delay.
The grey area of mushrooming home- stay structures, which are just hotels on forest fringes, also deserves scrutiny. There should be more guidelines for ensuring they follow an ecological approach.
Ecology should never be hampered by tourism and development.
The effort should be to expand elephant corridors, using the successful models within the country, including acquisition of lands using private funds and their transfer to the government
The Wildlife Trust of India: "The March of the Elephants" by Vivek Menon
The Hindu: "Clearing the Path"
The Hindu: "Elephant corridors in India threatened, says study: by Shiv Sahay Singh and Aathira Perinchery