Are elephants less precious than tigers in India? While there is undoubtedly greater awareness about elephant conservation now than in the past, protecting tusker lives is a serious social as well as ecological issue that defies any easy remedies.
The pachyderms’ most serious threat to survival comes from the very idea of development — electrocution through illegal power fencing and development projects in the majestic animal’s natural habitat, that are death traps for herds on the move.
At a workshop held in January 2024 at Dehradun’s Wildlife Institute of India, titled “Exploring Solutions For Minimising Electrocution Risks And Promoting Wildlife Safety Across Power Infrastructure in India”, experts noted that in the recent past “a more severe mechanism of electrocution has emerged, that is the deliberate electrocution of wildlife due to illegal electricity connections in crop fields. Large mammals with large-ranging patterns and dispersing over larger areas through human-dominated landscapes are more prone to this threat”.
They said that “since 2018, 379 of 575 elephants have been killed by deliberate and accidental electrocution. Electrocution is responsible for 72% of elephant deaths from 2018-2023”. The pachyderms meet their end as they stumble upon ill-maintained power lines and the electrical infrastructure passing through their forest abodes.
In December 2022, the Union environment ministry told the Lok Sabha that India has lost nearly 500 elephants to electrocution, train accidents, poaching and poisoning—highlighting the challenges undermining elephant conservation efforts.
Of the casualties, electrocution through contact with power transmission lines accounted for 348 deaths followed by train accidents (80), poaching (41) and poisoning (25) between 2017-18 and 2021-22.
While 500 deaths in a total wild elephant strength of 30,000 nationally may not sound alarming, it does reflect the labyrinthian complications involved in saving elephant lives in a country where the animal is venerated as an incarnation of Lord Ganesha, much revered around September every year when it is time for Ganesh Chaturthi.
Says Bilal Habib of Wildlife Institute of India: “These are social and conservation issues. It is highly complicated. Farmers encircle their lands with illegal wiring to ward off pigs and other animals that destroy crops. Unwittingly, wild elephants are trapped. It’s a vicious circle.”
Successive government panels over the years have recommended measures like burying transmission lines underground, setting up reinforced electric poles fitted with spikes to prevent elephants from rubbing against them, lifting sagging overhead power lines, and dismantling of defunct solar-powered fences to protect the animals from encountering live wires.
In Odisha, for instance, the state government has installed electricity cables worth ₹700 crore, so that the movement of elephants and other mammals is not hindered nor their lives endangered. The state’s Energy Minister, Pratap Keshari Deb, said ₹50 crore has been allocated in the state budget for 2023-24 under the elephant corridor scheme to check elephant deaths due to electrocution.
This was in addition to an already allocated ₹690.2 crore towards strengthening of electrical infrastructure in forest areas, elephant corridors and migratory routes. The state’s Chief Wildlife Warden said the Forest Department had identified a 3,800-km stretch for cabling and insulation of electric wires of which work in 2,500 km has been completed by the agencies of the Energy Department.
Besides, around 13,000 weak points in the power supply network had been identified in the forest areas of the state. The agencies, so far, have completed rectification work at over 9,000 such points. The weak points include sagging wires, tilted or weak electric poles – all potential death traps for wild elephants.
These threats are not confined to India by any chance. Globally, wild animals, birds and mammals have been exposed to a myriad of hazards. Studies reveal electrocution is a significant threat to endangered Cape and white-backed vultures in southern African countries, Saker falcons in Central Asia and some bird species in the US.
Even in India, overhead power lines have been recognised as a threat to birds like the critically endangered Great Indian Bustard. Although most incidents go undetected, overhead collisions with or without electrification may be fatal for birds. “However, the government and the user agency that distributes the power supply are working towards reducing collisions and electrocution by designing mitigation measures like converting overhead connections to underground power lines, insulating overhead wires, using aerial bunched cables (ABCs) and deploying marker devices on the wires to make them detectable to birds in flight,” a power ministry official told this reporter.
At the same time, electricity is an undeniable necessity for humans. In India, the government has laid out an ambitious vision to bring secure, affordable, and sustainable energy to its citizens. Around 750 million people in India have benefited by gaining access to electricity between 2000 and 2019. So a middle path is required between development and ecological balance.
According to official statistics, Karnataka has the highest number of wild elephants at 6,049, followed by Assam at 5,719, Kerala at 5,706, and Tamil Nadu at 2,761. There are 32 elephant reserves covering around 76,508 sq. km in 14 states. The overall Indian tally constitutes over 50% of the worldwide population of the Asian elephant.
If there is one area where elephant conservation has shown results in the past few years, it is reduction in the number of animals killed in train accidents.
Data provided in response to questions in Parliament shows that Assam experienced 24 elephant deaths due to train-hit incidents and Odisha suffered 80 elephant deaths due to electrocution between 2018-19 and 2022-23.
Now, says Habib, things have improved, showing that sincere state intervention can bear results. With greater coordination between different government departments and agencies, elephant deaths due to train accidents have witnessed a decline.
But that was not always the case. For several years in West Bengal, for instance, there was endless buck passing between the state government and the Indian Railways on how to stop the dying of elephants on railway tracks running through the state’s dense forests.
Only in 2018 did the Central government and a state agency finally decide to set up a joint committee to prevent such deaths, but not before the Rajya Sabha was informed that as many as 30 elephants died in West Bengal after being hit by speeding trains between 2012 and 2017. The primary responsibility of the proposed committee was to coordinate and identify railway track zones that are transit points for elephants. Various railway lines in north and south Bengal cut across forest land and paths frequented by elephant herds.
Experts believe that remedies are manageable with the introduction of better technology and sound planning. Habib pointed out that the government has identified 101 ‘sensitive’ spots along railway lines, which need to be monitored on a regular basis.
The Indian Railways is preparing to deploy the “Gajraj system” , an Artificial Intelligence-based solution, along a 700-km stretch of railway tracks in forest regions to mitigate elephant deaths. This surveillance system aims to alert loco pilots about the presence of elephants on the tracks.
Union Railways Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw was quoted by PTI as saying, “We have identified forested regions in Assam, West Bengal, Odisha, Kerala, Jharkhand, and parts of Chhattisgarh and Tamil Nadu that serve as habitats for elephants. The implementation of this AI-driven surveillance system in these areas will effectively notify train drivers in advance about elephants on the tracks.”
The system was conceptualised by a former General Manager of Northeast Frontier Railway (NFR), Anshul Gupta, who picked up this technology 13 years ago during a visit to London. “I experimented with it twice, once in 2011 and then in 2016 in different railway divisions but its successful implementation took place only in December 2022 when we launched this project in 11 corridors,” Gupta, who retired in March 2023, told PTI.
How does this system — estimated to cost ₹111 crore — work? When an elephant steps onto the track, the system issues an alert to various involved parties, including the train controller, station master, train drivers, and other stakeholders, prompting precautionary actions.
Clearly, where there is a will, there is a way. With tiger preservation so high in the government’s scheme of things, bolstered by the success of the programme, elephants too deserve their place under the sun. Realisation of this appears to be dawning, even if somewhat late in the day.