Ironical as it may sound, even as the elephant is venerated as god in India, the animal is ruthlessly poached for its tusk which are used to make ivory and are even touted as a cure for several maladies, including baldness in men.
The elephant in India has been facing the same fate as the tiger, whose numbers declined alarmingly, despite schemes like Project Tiger, which was launched in 1972. There is a lot of similarity between the tiger and the elephant. Both are killed for their body parts. While tiger skins are used as drawing-room decorations and the big cat’s organs used for “curing” even sexual impotency, the tusks of elephants translate into delicate ivory curios — and there is a huge market for these.
However, while the tiger — prided as India’s national animal — got a lot of attention, the elephant attracted but very little. And it comes as little surprise that 100 pachyderms were reportedly slaughtered in the forests of southern India (Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka) during the past 24 months. This is being seen as the biggest ever poaching since 2004, the year the forest brigand, Veerappan, was shot dead.
He had butchered about 75 elephants between 1975 and 1985 in these forests, but other poachers appear to have done far better than him. They “finished off “100 of these animals in just two years.
This is probably only to be expected, given the kind of gadgets today’s poachers have. They use state-of-the-art weapons like AK 47 rifles, sport night-vision glasses and travel in sophisticated vehicles.
On the other hand, forest guards, meant for protecting wild life, are poorly equipped. Sometimes, they do not even have proper footwear — falling prey to blood-sucking leeches and venomous snakes. Often, they carry batons (lathis) , not firearms, and do not have vehicles.
How then do they chase the poacher or even engage him in a combat?
On top of all this is the man-elephant conflict, given the shrinking animal habitat. When forests are cleared for agricultural cultivation or setting up factories, pachyderms not only lose their homes, but also their migratory corridors, making it difficult for the animals to move unhindered from one area to another in search of food and water.
So, obviously, elephants begin to destroy crops for their food — and to create a corridor to pass through.
In this struggle, some of the animals are electrocuted or poisoned by villagers, angry about the destruction of their crops and sometimes even their houses. When these lead to economic losses, villagers are only too willing to shake hands with poachers, who promise the poor folks a share of the ivory loot.
Yes, the connivance of forest guards or senior officials is essential if poachers are to have a smooth killing. No wonder, there was a forest range officer and a deputy range officer among the 40 men who were arrested in southern India in recent weeks. And huge quantities of tusks have been confiscated.
Poaching of tuskers — which is also common in some other parts of the country, like the states of Odisha, West Bengal and Assam and a few regions in central India — has also resulted in a serious sex-ratio-imbalance in areas like Kerala — 1 bull:122 females. This means unhealthy in-breeding within a group.
In the final analysis, the rapid decline in the number of Indian tuskers — there are about 20,000 wild elephants now in the country — can be largely attributed to the flourishing world trade in ivory and people’s craving for fancy objects made from it. China is one of the biggest importers of ivory — as it is one of the largest markets for tiger parts, which also come from outside.
In fact, much like the tiger story in India — which took a tragic turn with the rising demand for the animal’s organs (the penis soup is not just a delicacy, but is “guaranteed” to increase male libido) in China, elephant poaching had worsened after the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) allowed China to import 108 tonnes of ivory from Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe in 2008 in a one-off sale even as the ban on ivory trade had been in force since 1990. Experts believe that this could have been an important reason for renewed elephant killing in India.
Similarly, when CITES allowed Japan to buy 34 tonnes of ivory from Namibia and Zimbabwe in 1999, the Indian tusker suffered. (Only the males among Asian elephants have tusks, while some females of the species in Africa have them).
The picture is as grim in Africa, where elephants are being slaughtered on an unimaginable scale. In 2012, more than 35,000 of them—or close to 100 a day—were killed for their tusks. Things turned particularly ugly in 2013, when more than 300 fell victim to cyanide poisoning by poachers in Zimbabwe. If things go on like this, the African elephant may be extinct in just 15 years from now.
The solution to save the elephant does not have two ways about it. In India, as elsewhere, poaching has to stop, and in some African countries, governments themselves are guilty of this crime, lured as they are by the huge profits which this “white gold” fetches.
In India, underpaid forest officials are tempted by the big money that poaching promises. And poorly armed forest guards are not always willing to gamble away their lives in elephant country.
But, ultimately, the world — which is also you and me — has to take a pledge that it will not be part of this business of murdering elephants. Come on, we do not have to decorate our homes with ivory or build little castles (models of the Taj Mahal made out of ivory are still a big draw) out of it by digging a grave for that majestic creature we call elephant.
Gautaman Bhaskaran is an author, commentator and movie critic, who has worked with The Statesman in Kolkata and The Hindu in Chennai for 35 years. He now writes for the Hindustan Times, the Gulf Times and The Seoul Times.