Ecologists and conservationists the world over believe that Indian forests have nurtured the largest population of Asian elephants for a unique reason: The people of India see the elephant as a form of Ganesha, the god of auspiciousness and wisdom! They are reluctant to kill elephants even when they kill hundreds of people or destroy crops in several eastern and southern states of India.
“In the conservation of wild life, it is difficult to judge whether human beings are wrong or animals are getting out of control,” says Meenakshi Nagendran, who represents the Asian Elephant Conservation Fund Programme, an arm of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, “I have worked with the Asian Elephant Conservation Programme for some years now and have studied the reasons why wild elephants destroy crops and kill villagers all through the eastern and southern states of India. As their habitats – the dense tropical jungles of Assam, Bengal, Orissa, Andhra, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala – through which the elephant corridor passes – get denuded or destroyed and human settlements encroach upon forest lands, elephants are deprived of their food and water resources. They are forced to come out of the jungles in search of food and water. Naturally, they feast upon the harvests, which are ripening in farms that border the forest. One elephant eats 150 kg of food and drinks 150 gallons of water every day! That makes the requirement of 25000 elephant really awesome.
“Additionally, when elephants get used to eating tasty paddy crops, they return to eat some more, thus destroying the livelihood of thousands of poor farmers in India. But we must respect their wildness and realize that they do not have the ability to discern that they are doing wrong in stampeding into the fields so carefully planted and nurtured by human beings. As animals, they go only by their hunger and thirst. People, on the other hand, are forced to encroach upon forestlands and even reserved animal sanctuaries and parks because of the huge growth in population and the burgeoning ambitions of people to own more and more. This is the basis of the animal-human being conflict which results in loss to both!”
Meenakshi informs that the Asian Elephant Conservation Fund of U.S. has, until now, disbursed $6.4 million to various NGOs (like Aranya) and community projects groups working in the area of conservation and to government agencies looking after elephant populations in India. There is hope in India that if the conservation programme works well with the support of international agencies, Asian elephants in India will multiply and make India a wild-life-rich nation. At the present time, the entire world has just 35,000 wild Asian elephants, out of which 25,000 are in Indian forests. Kerala, the southern state, has the maximum number of elephants in captivity. Elephants are used in Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra for all festivals, be they Hindu or Muslim. The rich and fabulous temples of South India nurture large numbers of elephants because they are considered sacred and auspicious. They are caparisoned with heavy golden ornaments and participate in temple processions and festivals throughout the year. They are also employed in the business of timber cutting and huge construction sites.
Krishnendu Bose, a wild life enthusiast-film-maker, has been tracking India’s elephant population with passion for the past two decades. Having created a large amount of footage on elephant behavior and their conflict with human beings, Bose has now made a film called “Elephant – God or Destroyer”. Bose actually lived in Kerala and Karnataka villages bordering elephant forests and filmed their attacks on farms and human beings. He says that wild elephants have killed hundreds of people in the last three years. His film shows how villagers in remote forests build their own alarm systems to drive away elephant herds from their fields. Bose shows in the film that the main threat to wild elephants is from the destruction of forest corridors, which are vital for elephants to move from one forest to another – from the Karbi-Anglong forest in Assam to the Satyamangalam forest in Kerala. This corridor – which stretches from Assam, through Bengal, Bihar, Orissa, Andhra, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka to end in Kerala – is constantly depleted or destroyed by highways, dams, railway lines, human encroachments and by timber merchants and quarry owners in the Nilgiris, the Eastern and Western Ghats and the Himalayan foothills.
“Elephants are listed under Schedule I of the Indian Wildlife Protection Act of 1972,” says Bose, “But when their forest habitats shrink, the elephant-human being conflict worsens. What chance does a human being have in comparison to an elephant, which weighs 4000 kgs? When elephants become insecure, they attack human beings and are sometimes shot down. They stop mating and the species comes under the threat of extinction. As it is, in some parts of India, there is one female per 100 male elephants. This is dangerous for the survival of the Asian elephant.” Bose’s film, made with help from the Public Sector Broadcasting Trust, India, is a graphic portrayal of the present situation in many states. Bose further says, “The Kaziranga experiment of India’s wildlife programme has been successful. It is found that whenever man leaves nature alone, the forces of nature heal themselves and bring back the normal balance of forest life. In Kaziranga, it has been found that by stopping human interference, the number of rhinos, elephants and even tigers have increased in numbers!”
Bose further says, “The Asian elephant has survived in spite of all these disasters because it is considered an incarnation or form of Ganesha. But villagers, as you can see in my film, are beginning to question their own faith. Is the elephant an animal, a god or a destroyer? They ask. Still, their faith emerges stronger and they are reluctant to harm an elephant except in extreme cases. Though their numbers are depleting, wild animals like tigers, lions, deer, elephants etc continue to inhabit Indian forests because of the faith of millions that each species is associated with one divine deity or the other. But on the other hand, the destruction of animals and forests continued unabated. This is the strange duality of the Indian cultural mindset.”
Krishnendu Bose’s film has been shown in India through the good offices of Meenakshi Nagendran from the U.S. Asian Elephant Conservation Fund Programme, Bittu Sahgal, editor of Sanctuary and Hemendra Kothari, founder, Wildlife Conservation Trust of India.
Author - Elephants are a symbol of
aishwarya - opulence and prosperity - strength and wisdom. They are
the vahana of Lakshmi and are auspicious. This is why they feature in all
temples. Also, Buddha's mother Mahamaya saw a white elephant in her dream before
the birth of the Buddha and thus in Buddhist temples, the Buddha is represented
by an elephant. Similarly, Trishala, the mother of Mahaveer Swami, the 24th Jain
Tirthankar, also saw an elephant among the 14 auspicious symbols in her dream
while she was pregnant. Additionally, Ganesha, the lord of knowledge,
auspiciousness and wisdom has an elephant head. Thus to all Indic religions and
cultures, the elephant is sacred and appears in all places of worship. It is
symbolic of royalty. The king of Siam or Thailand has the largest
collection of white elephants which are even more auspicious and there are films
made on his collection. A search on the net will show these
Elephants in Periyar