Image by 0fjd125gk87 from Pixabay 

Introduction

There are many threats that elephants face, from illegal ivory trading to increased human-animal conflict. World Elephant Day tries to highlight why these animals should be protected and what laws and measures can be enacted to ensure their survival.

World Elephant Day is celebrated on 12 August every year to raise awareness about the plight of elephants all over the world. World Elephant Day tries to highlight why these animals should be protected and what laws and measures can be enacted to ensure their survival. There are many risks that elephants face, from illegal ivory trading to increased human-animal conflict. Their habitats are also threatened by human activities. You can celebrate World Elephant Day by sharing solutions for preventing the exploitation of these majestic creatures, and by learning more about them. 


History

The Elephant-king relation in India: 

This relation helped preserve the species from extinction and in the process how the environment has been preserved. 

“The ancient Indian kingdom was tied to the forest by the institution of the war elephant”, is a very important observation, especially in the current focus on the environment.

Kings used the elephant as a symbol of power and, because of its size alone, it became an object of awe and glory. At the same time, it was not economically possible to raise them from birth, as elephants are useful only when they attain adulthood. For domestication, Indian kings captured wild adults and trained them. This helped the preservation of forests as it was in the forests that the elephants naturally grew. Therefore, the study forms an important part of environmental history. Again, catching elephants was not an easy job as it required great manpower that only kings could afford. The history of elephants in relation to kings is not only in India but in other eastern countries as well — probably the Indian model being adopted elsewhere. This leads naturally to the war history of elephants as elephants provided the might of the army.

Thus, the study at once becomes that of the role of elephants in military, political and cultural history of the times dealt with, as the author uses the relation between the king and the elephant as a thread that connects kings not only to the elephants but also to forests and forest people. It is important to note that the tribesmen of forests were also thus protected.

In an interesting observation, Trautmann explains how India got to 31 elephant reserves at present from the eight elephant forests in ancient India. He starts from Arthasastra and goes through the A’in Akbari (1598) where there is a lot of information available about elephants, and quotes from the narrations of European travellers. With illustration, the distribution of the elephant population in India over a time frame is explained.

He quotes extensively from Sanskrit literature — especially the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata — facts about war elephants in relation to kingships. The story that impresses is when Rama enquires of his brother Bharata about the welfare of the elephants and the forest. The ideal war elephant was a male with large tusks at the height of its power at age sixty. Here we understand that the elephants lived longer under the care of the kings, as he again quotes from Sanskrit verse that a sixty-year-old elephant was among the richest gifts. According to scholarly literature available on Indus civilization, “though the reading of the available material is ambiguous at best”, Trautmann believes that Indus people were familiar with elephants and elephants played a substantive role in their thoughts.

He quotes Iravatham Mahadevan, a researcher of Indus script, that there are a number of images of elephants in the seals and copper tablets to show that Indus people indeed knew about elephants quite well. He adds, “the evidence of captivity and display in Egypt and Assyria is certain, and for the Indus civilization it seems good”.

The conclusion of elephants being used as vahanas for Gods, by him through the texts of early and later Vedic literature is highly impressive.

Interesting to read is the chapter on the structure of the use of elephants, which quotes elaborately from Indian ancient Indian texts such as Arthsashtra. The elephant’s role in warfare is discussed in detail in this chapter, compared with horses and chariots as vehicles of kings and warriors. He takes pains to describe the Vyuha s and break them, quoting extensively from Sanskrit literature.

In ‘Elephant Knowledge’, the entire process of capture, training, use, and maintenance, is described in detail. He ends on an optimistic note, saying “judging from the increase of wild elephant number in India, it appears the nation-state can secure the future of elephants”. The added strength of the book is the delightful colour plates and comparative pictures of elephants from different areas. This book is a departure from the ordinary history of kings or animals; it comes as a fresh breeze in the entirety of the animal’s life both in the forest and in captivity in relation to kings and the environment. The book is an asset to both animal and environment lovers’ libraries.

On 12 August 2012, World Elephant Day was co-founded by Canadian filmmaker Patricia Sims and the Elephant Reintroduction Foundation of Thailand, an initiative of HM Queen Sirikit.

This day was observed for the first time on 12 August 2012. And since then, World Elephant Day has been celebrated every year.

Significance

World Elephant Day plays a crucial role in raising awareness about the problems faced by these gentle giants all around the globe. These animals face the threats of poaching, illegal wildlife trade, habitat destruction, and more.

It is important to work towards creating a sustainable and safe environment for these creatures where they can thrive.


Some Facts!

  • According to the World Wide Fund For Nature (WWF), there are around 4.15 lakh African elephants left in the wild.
  • There has been a 50 percent decline in the population of Asian elephants in the last 75 years. Now, there are only 20,000 -40,000 Asian elephants left in the wild.
  • African elephants are larger than Asian elephants. Their ears are also larger and are shaped like the African continent.
  • Wild elephants can live till 60-70 years of age.
  • Elephants are very intelligent creatures, just like dolphins and apes. They are capable of showing emotions like grief, empathy, and compassion.
  • Elephants pick up seismic vibrations through their feet to communicate with each other.

Why are Elephants Important?

Elephants are among the most intelligent of the creatures with whom we share the planet, with complex consciousnesses that are capable of strong emotions. Across Africa they have inspired respect from the people that share the landscape with them, giving them a strong cultural significance. As icons of the continent elephants are tourism magnets, attracting funding that helps protect wilderness areas. They are also keystone species, playing an important role in maintaining the biodiversity of the ecosystems in which they live.

During the dry season, elephants use their tusks to dig for water. This not only allows the elephants to survive in dry environments and when droughts strike, but also provides water for other animals that share harsh habitats.

When forest elephants eat, they create gaps in the vegetation. These gaps allow new plants to grow and create pathways for other smaller animals to use. They are also one of the major ways in which trees disperse their seeds; some species rely entirely upon elephants for seed dispersal.

On the savannahs, elephants feeding on tree sprouts and shrubs help to keep the plains open and able to support the plains game that inhabits these ecosystems.

Wherever they live, elephants leave dung that is full of seeds from the many plants they eat. When this dung is deposited the seeds are sown and grow into new grasses, bushes, and trees, boosting the health of the savannah ecosystem.

Elephants in India

Image by Olga Ozik from Pixabay 

India is home to between 50 and 60% of all of Asia’s wild elephants and about 20% of the domesticated elephants. As such, the country is of paramount importance for the survival of the species. The elephant plays a central role in Indian life and has done for many centuries. Elephants are closely associated with religious and cultural heritage, playing an important role in the country’s history. They remain revered today. An India without elephants is simply unimaginable.

Indian Elephant Population Figures:

  • Elephant Range: 110,000 km² approx
  • Country Ranking: 2nd of 13
  • Total Wild Elephants: 23,900 – 32,900 Total
  • 10,300 -17,400 (south)
  • 2,400 – 2,700 (central)
  • 10,300 – 11,300 (north-east)
  • 900 – 1,500 (north-west)
  • Country Ranking: 1st of 13
  • Total Captive Population: 3,500
  • Country Ranking: 3rd

Wild Elephants in India

In past centuries, the forests of India literally teemed with elephants. Although no census or estimates of the wild population exist, it is said that in the early 17th century the Moghul Emperor Jehangir had 113,000 captive elephants throughout his empire. Extrapolating from this figure, it is easy to imagine a wild population comfortably in excess of a million.

Today’s population is obviously a fraction of that, but large numbers of sustainable herds exist – particularly in the south and northeast.

Wild elephants in India are facing a variety of problems, but most focus on the usual issues of habitat loss and human-elephant conflict. These have been on the increase since the middle of the 20th century as the explosion of the population and the demands of economic development led to the clearing and cultivation of former elephant habitats.

Concern for the threat to the elephant led to the formation in 1992 of the government-backed “Project Elephant”. This scheme was intended to preserve habitat and establish elephant corridors, allowing for the traditional migration patterns of established elephant herds. Addressing human-elephant conflict issues and improving the welfare of domesticated elephants was also a central part of the organization’s brief.

The organisation presided over the establishment of 25 Elephant Reserves throughout the elephants’ traditional range and covering a total area of 58,000 km². A population survey of the reserves in 2005 found that over 21,000 elephants were living in the protected areas and the population was actually on the increase.

Project Elephant has also established the MIKE (Monitoring of Illegal Killing of Elephants) programme of CITES. This has uncovered a significant increase in the poaching of bull tuskers, which has damaged the population dynamics by disturbing the sex ratio. In some areas, the normal level of 1:12 (male-female) has been so distorted that 1:100 has been known. This abnormality seriously affects the genetic viability of what on the surface can look like healthy sustainable populations.

Domesticated Elephants in India   

India has a long history of elephants in domestication with the animals participating in many areas of Indian life from war and ceremonial use to transport, construction, and logging.
A survey by Project Elephant in the year 2000 found a total of 3,400 domesticated elephants owned by the following groups:
  • Private owners: 2,540
  • Temples: 190
  • Forest departments: 480
  • Zoos: 80
  • Circuses: 110

The elephants are engaged in the following types of work:

  • Temple Elephants A number of temples provide a permanent home for elephants, including one that houses 63! The presence of an elephant greatly enhances the temple’s status and money-raising capability. However, temple elephants are not by any means well-cared for and some are permanently chained to the same spot for their entire existence.

  • Ceremonial and Festival Use – November-May is festival season in India and many towns and villages hold religious events at which it is desirable to have one or more elephants present. Often the elephants are richly caparisoned with decoration and colour. Many of these elephants are hired out by private owners. The elephants often have to work every day of the week standing in the hot sun while noise and movement occur all around them. It is exceptionally difficult to work. After the festival is over, the elephants will face a long walk to the next festival.

  • Begging street elephants – Many owners and mahouts use the elephants to exploit the public’s reverence for the animals by using them to beg for money on the streets. Conditions in the cities are totally unsuitable for elephants and life is exceptionally hard.

  • Tourist elephants – Approximately 100-120 elephants work in the tourist trade giving rides. Of these, 87 work at the Amber Fort in Jaipur and are reportedly overworked and in poor condition.

  • Forest Department Elephants – These elephants are largely used by Rangers to patrol protected areas.
  • Circus elephants - Elephants are made to stand on one leg and spin in circles – often while standing on top of small stools. These are actions elephants have never been observed carrying out in the wild precisely because they cause long-term damage to the animals’ physiology.
    It is well documented that elephants are forced to perform these actions by being beaten with bullhooks, while young elephants are savagely constrained and beaten in a process known as “the crush”, which breaks their spirit and forces them to comply.
    Big cats are popular in the circus, but many have their teeth and claws removed rendering them harmless to their abusers. They are “trained” with whips which teach them to fear the ringmaster and not attack.

  • Zoo elephants - Zoos and animal welfare advocates differ over elephants in captivity. Critics say zoos lack space to house elephants. Zoos argue that they are expanding and improving exhibits and that elephants live better in captivity than in the wild with the disease, drought, habitat loss, poaching, and conflicts with people.
India has some of the strictest elephant legislation in Asia, which should provide adequate protection for the country’s 3,600 domesticated elephants. However, the laws are rarely adhered to or enforced and many of India’s captive elephants suffer as a result.

Growth of Elephants 

As the largest land mammal, it makes sense that it would take elephants years to reach full growth. Reaching their final height usually occurs around the end of their adolescence, but they don't always start trying to mate as soon as they're grown. Some males are well into their 30s before reaching that milestone.

  • Full Size:

Elephants take a long time to grow physically and emotionally. They reach the majority of their sze by age 15, but often continue to grow in size and weight until they're about 20 years old. Males might fill out for a bit longer, but by age 25, both males and females are at their full size and strength.

  • Female Maturity:

Females reach sexual maturity before their bodies have finished growing. Some females are able to reproduce as young as age 9, but most are between 12 and 16 when they reach sexual maturity. They can have a calf every three to five years until they are in their 40s, but most female elephants have no more than four babies during their lifetimes. Older females usually manage the herd, keeping younger elephants in line and teaching them how to live like an elephant. 

  • Male Maturity: 

Male elephants usually reach their sexual maturity around age 10, but they aren't fully grown physically at that age. This means a young male must wait until he's strong enough and smart enough to compete against other males for a female's affections. Most males don't mate until about age 30, if at all. They can continue to mate until they're old enough to lose to the younger guys, which is often well into their 40s.

  • Lifespan:    

Elephants can live nearly as long as humans. In the wild, elephants might live anywhere from 30 to 50 years, with lucky ones sometimes hitting 70. In captivity, an elephant can live as long as 80 years. After an elephant hits 50, he starts to decline a bit physically, sometimes suffering from problems such as arthritis. Elephants lose their teeth several times during their lifetimes; they can grow back their molars six times, usually. When they can no longer replace their molars, the elephants die.

Conclusion  

There is a mixed picture with regard to elephant conservation and welfare issues in India.

Project Elephant has made a huge difference and provided a focus for conservation efforts. Although there are still many remaining problems, these efforts are beginning to bear fruit regarding the conservation of India’s wild elephants.

The situation regarding the captive animal reveals a more worrying trend. Despite a rich culture of domesticated elephants, many animals are not receiving the welfare they require under the law and are suffering as a result.

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