Ranchi: Jharkhand clocked 555 elephants in the 7th All India Elephant Census under Project Elephant, a steep decline from 688 recorded in the 2012 census, but unfazed state authorities have blamed this dip on factors ranging from the migratory nature of the animals to Naxalite combing operations and trenches dug by Bengal to block natural migration corridors.
The census, synchronised from May 10 for the first time across four bordering states Jharkhand, Bengal, Odisha and Chhattisgarh, used direct (sightings) and indirect (dung decay analysis) methods to avoid duplication and arrive at a more accurate count.
Figures released today by the office of state chief wildlife warden L.R. Singh show a sharp fall in elephant numbers at Jharkhand’s two major habitats Dalma Wildlife Sanctuary and Palamau Tiger Reserve.
The Palamau habitat recorded 186 elephants, down from 238 counted in 2012. Perceived to be well-managed, the Dalma sanctuary delivered a shocker with 46 elephants, less than a third from 156 in 2012.
In contrast, most regions under the survey performed better. Ranchi region, comprising Ranchi, Gumla, Lohardaga and Simdega, registered 66 elephants compared to 27 in 2012. Singhbhum (Kolhan and Khunti) region showed a small hike of 244 from 234. Dumka which didn’t record any elephant in the last census saw one this time. But Bokaro showed a decline from 23 in 2012 to 19 now.
Chief wildlife warden Singh attributed the decline in Dalma and Palamau reserves to the ongoing anti-Naxalite operations in wildlife pockets leading to an exodus of elephants and a trench on the border made by Bengal confusing the animals.
“In Palamau and adjacent regions, continuous anti-rebel operations include firing and burning of forests. So yes, wild animals do migrate to safer, quieter places. Our elephants over these years may have gone to neighbouring Chhattisgarh,” he said.
Palamau Tiger Reserve director M.P. Singh agreed, saying that over the last one month, security forces had launched drives to flush out Maoists from places like Burha Pahar and adjoining areas.
“It’s a tricky situation. There have been many instances where forces have asked villagers to burn jungles for clearer visibility,” he said. On the decline of elephant numbers specifically in Palamau over these five years, Singh said they did their internal survey every year. “We had counted 160 in 2016,” he said.
On depleting elephants in Dalma, wildlife warden Singh said one of the immediate reasons was a 6.5km trench created by the Bengal government on the Jharkhand-Bengal border.
“August onward, elephants from Dalma move to Bengal through familiar corridors. From February onwards, they keep coming back to Jharkhand. But Bengal had dug up trenches last October-November to block elephant movement from Jharkhand. As a result, our elephants may have migrated somewhere else,” he reasoned.
He went on to add that elephant population in Chhattisgarh and Bengal might have risen at the expense of Jharkhand. “But, that will be confirmed only when the data of all states are compiled at the central level followed by micro analysis. We need to understand if there is a loss in elephant population or a rearrangement of their habitats in neighbouring states.”
But striking a note of dissent was noted wildlife expert D.S. Srivastava, who has been on many state and national level wildlife panels in the past. He maintained the elephant population could have actually gone down alarmingly due to massive destruction of forest spaces.
“The purpose behind this nationwide scientific census in summer was to assess home ranges of elephants and link them with habitat improvement. Elephants always prefer to stick to their home range during summer for food and water,” he said.
Adding that while Naxalism combat and border trenches might affect the state’s elephant population to an extent, he said Jharkhand authorities could not overlook the fact that forests had been degraded. He added that he personally felt Jharkhand would not have more than 300-350 elephants.