Even though India has one of the highest number of Asian elephants in the wild —as many as 28,000 — a study conducted by the Association of Indian Zoo and Wildlife Veterinarians (AIZWV) has indicated that over 50 per cent of the jumbos die before reaching puberty. The highest percentage of deaths was reported from West Bengal, followed by Assam and Odisha.
A two-day international symposium on “Ecology and Health Management of Asiatic Elephant” will be organised on November 19 and 20 by the AIZWV, Project Elephant (under the Ministry of Environment & Forests) and Indian Council of Agricultural Research. A report will then be submitted to the Environment Ministry for deciding the future course of action.
In his paper titled, “Study and evaluation of elephant mortality in elephant reserves — An overview of species health status,” Dr BM Arora, president of AIZWV, observed that 66 per cent of elephants in West Bengal, 61 per cent in Assam, 57.5 per cent in Odisha, 55.6 per cent in Kerala, 55.28 per cent in Tamil Nadu, 49 per cent in Uttarakhand and 42 per cent in Karnataka died before the age of 15. The average lifespan of an elephant is about 70-80 years. Arora is also the organising secretary of the proposed event.
The research reveals that apart from disease and illness, natural causes, electrocution, train accidents, poisoning, habitat and environmental hazards are major causes of elephant deaths. Human-elephant conflict has also emerged as one of the prominent causes.
According to estimates in the study, 1,499 elephants died due to illness or diseases in the past two decades, while 1,276 elephants died of natural causes. While 562 were killed by poachers, electrocution claimed 694 elephants. Electrocutions happen when elephants come in contact with electric fences after they stray into human settlements.
However, the causes of deaths of as many as 875 elephants were not known.
According to Arora, it is important for veterinary experts to pinpoint specific cause of the elephant’s death in the post-mortem report. “There is certainly a cause behind the animal’s natural death as well,” he stressed.
Arora pointed out that reasons for deaths of elephants where causes of demise is not know cannot be determined later because only bones or small remains of their decomposed bodies were found during the research.
If an elephant died due to injuries, capture, senility etc. it cannot be diagnosed unless there is some reference in the post-mortem report, he added.
Hence, in order to assess this trend of premature jumbo deaths, the need of the hour is to find out the exact cause. Sometimes deaths are explained as caused by man-animal conflict but all elephants cannot die because of this. “We have to focus on correct diagnosis to know the specific causes behind elephant deaths,” said Arora.
The proposed conference will also discuss man-elephant conflicts in various States of the country. As per official reports, on an average 350 people get killed annually in the country due to human-elephant conflict. The experts will try to find a long-term solution for conservation of elephants while ensuring that the life and livelihood of villagers is not affected.
According to Arora, during 2013-14 alone, as many as 80 people in Assam, 67 each in Odisha and West Bengal, 45 in Tamil Nadu, 38 in Karnataka and seven in Kerala died due to human-elephant conflict.