India is rich and mega-diverse in both culture and in the natural resources and has legacy of conservation of this vast richness. Animals and Birds in India have been an integral part of the myths and mythology and have since ingrained in our socio-cultural milieu. Wildlife such as Lion, Tiger, Vulture, Elephants etc. have been associated with several deities and have been revered since ages. It is best exemplified in the case of Ganesha – India’s elephant god and slayer of obstacles in life. Prayers to lord Ganesha often mark the beginning of good things. Elephants are also considered as a sign of prosperity and are the center of attraction in Indian zoos and even in religious institutions where people, particularly the children throng to see them. Biologically, forests in which elephants’ dwell are rich in diversity and act as water source for many perennial Indian rivers. Elephants play a crucial functional role in the tropical forest ecosystem through seed dispersal, nutrient cycling, biomass removal, and assisted vegetation generation through trampling and other effects that eventually shape forest communities. Elephant forests also sequester tons of carbon emitted in atmosphere, and shield us from the adversities of climate change. Due to their central role in shaping and maintaining forest environment, elephants are often referred to as ecosystem engineers.
There are three species of elephants that occur in the world. Africa has two of them and Asia has one. Asian Elephant (Elephas maximus) is the largest terrestrial mammal of India which requires large forested habitats to manage and maintain the viable populations. Thus, without doubt, conservation of elephants clearly rests on securing large forested habitats.
Considering their ecological importance, elephants are considered as one of the keystone species of biodiversity conservation. Further to this, elephants are identified as umbrella species as a wide array of tropical biodiversity can be conserved under the ambit of elephant conservation given their large and heterogenous habitat requirements. Furthermore, because of cultural and religious importance and aesthetic appeal, elephants also serve as flagship species in biodiversity conservation. It is only remarkable that a single species act as keystone, flagship, and umbrella species of biodiversity conservation amply justifying India’s decision to declare elephants as National Heritage animal.
Asian elephants were believed to be widely distributed — from Tigris — Euphrates in West Asia eastward through Persia into the Indian sub-continent, South and Southeast Asia including Sri Lanka, Java, Sumatra, Borneo and up to North China. Currently they are confined to Indian Subcontinent, South East Asia and some Asian Islands: Bangladesh; Bhutan; Cambodia; China; India; Indonesia (Kalimantan, Sumatera); Lao People’s Democratic Republic; Malaysia (Sabah, Peninsular Malaysia); Myanmar; Nepal; Sri Lanka; Thailand; Vietnam.
Within Asia, although elephants occur in 13 countries, India holds more than 60% wild elephant populations of the globe. In India, Asian elephants are distributed majorly in southern and north-eastern India, east-central and northern regions. There are 10 landscapes identified by Elephant Tasks Force (2010) in the above mentioned regions on the principles of elephant habitat contiguity and have distinct populations with occasional genetic exchange.
The current distribution of wild elephant in India is now restricted to four general areas:
- North-eastern India,
- Central India,
- North-western India,
- Southern India.
In north-eastern India, the elephant range extends from the eastern border of Nepal in northern West Bengal through western Assam along the Himalaya foothills as far as the Mishmi Hills. From here it extends into eastern Arunachal Pradesh, the plains of upper Assam, and the foothills of Nagaland. Further west, it extends to the Garo Hills of Meghalaya through the Khasi Hills, to parts of the lower Brahmaputra plains and Karbi Plateau. Elsewhere in the south in Tripura, Mizoram, Manipur, and the Barak valley districts of Assam, isolated herds occur.
In central India, highly fragmented elephant populations are found in the States of Orissa, Jharkhand, and the southern part of West Bengal, with some animals wandering into Chhattisgarh. In north-western India, the species occurs in six fragmented populations at the foot of the Himalayas in Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh, ranging from Katerniaghat Wildlife Sanctuary in Bahraich Forest Division in the east, to the Yamuna River in the west.
There are eight main populations in southern India, each fragmented from the others: northern Karnataka; the crestline of Karnataka—Western Ghats; Bhadra— Malnad; Brahmagiri—Nilgiris—Eastern Ghats; Nilambur—Silent Valley—Coimbatore; Anamalais—Parambikulam; Periyar—Srivilliputhur; and Agasthyamalais.
Launch of Project Elephant
Elephant is a National Heritage animal of India and has protected under Seclude I species of Indian Wild Life Protection Act, 1972. Concerned at the primary need to restore the elephant habitats and reduce suffering of both elephant as well as the human population, the Government of India launched the “Project Elephant” in 1991-92 as a Centrally Sponsored Scheme of the Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change. It was intended to provide financial and technical support to the elephant range states of India for the protection of elephants, their habitats and corridors and address issue of human- animal conflict. It also sought to promote welfare of captive elephants. The Project Elephant (PE) was launched with following objectives:
- To protect elephants, their habitat & corridors
- To address issues of man-animal conflict
- Welfare of captive elephants
Financial and Technical support are being provided to major elephant bearing States in the country. Presently, the Project Elephant is being implemented in 22 States/UTs, viz. Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Kerala, Maharashtra, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Odisha, Tamil Nadu, Tripura, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Rajasthan, Andaman & Nicobar, Bihar, Punjab, Gujarat and Haryana (where an elephant rescue centre has been set up supported by Project Elephant).
Main activities under the Project are as follows:
The Project Elephant aims at providing support to the States for achievement of the following broad objectives:-
- Conserve and protect viable population of wild elephants in their natural habitats in the country;
- To conserve and protect and, where necessary, to restore natural habitats and traditional corridors/migratory routes or movement paths used by the elephants — through eco-restoration, acquisition etc ;
- To take concrete measures to protect the elephants from poaching and other threats by taking suitable measures like deployment of patrolling squads, intelligence gathering etc;
- To create a viable mechanism to ensure inter-state and regional and national level coordination in protecting and conserving the elephant and its ranges;
- To create infrastructure and other facilities for conservation support activities like veterinary care, management training, humane methods of capture, tranquilizing and translocation etc of wild elephants, as and when required;
- To improve and create infrastructure for the welfare of elephants in domestic use, including their veterinary care, training of mahouts and supervisory staff in proper treatment of elephants in captivity;
- To encourage and create facilities for research related to the management and ecology of elephant, and also with respect to its veterinary care;
- To take appropriate steps to mitigate man-elephant conflict through suitable measures, such as eco-development, public education and awareness programmes, scientific management, ex-gratia payments, deployment of anti-depredation teams etc.
- To take measures for detection and prevention of diseases in wild elephants.
Important Committees of the Project Elephant:
- Steering Committee of Project Elephant:
A Steering Committee for the Project Elephant has been constituted under the Chairmanship of Hon’ble Minister, EF&CC. The Committee also includes representatives of the Government as well as non-government wildlife experts and scientists. The term of the Steering Committee is for a period of three years. It has a responsibility to review the implementation of Protect Elephant and provide guidance from time to time. Besides, the Chief Wildlife Wardens of all 22 elephant range states and the heads of the four premier institutions, namely Wildlife Institute of India (WII), Zoological Survey of India (ZSI), Botanical Survey of India (BSI) and Indian Veterinary Research Institute (IVRI) are permanent invitees to the meetings of the Steering Committee. The Committee advises the centre on the project related issues. Till now, 18 meetings of the Steering Committee of the Project Elephant have been convened.
18th meetings of the Steering Committee of the Project Elephant
- Central Project Elephant Monitoring Committee (CPEMC):
A Central Project Elephant Monitoring Committee (CPEMC) was constituted by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Change on 28th December, 2018 for monitoring the implementation of directions/instructions/guidelines of the Ministry and Court’s direction related to conservation and protection of elephants. The Committee is headed by Addl. Director General of Forest (PT/PE) & MS NTCA, MoEF&CC. Till now, five meetings of the CPEMC have been convened.
- Captive Elephant Health care and Welfare Committee (CEHWC)
A Captive Elephant Healthcare and Welfare Committee (CEHWC) was constituted by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Change on 22nd August, 2019 to look in to the issues related to healthcare, welfare and management of captive elephants in the country.
Estimation of wild elephant population:
The Project Elephant has been conducting Elephant population estimation in every five years as an All India Synchronized Elephant estimation in all the elephant bearing range states in the country using the techniques of direct count method and dung count. The comparative figures of the last three population estimations as below for the states shows that the estimated population of wild elephants in the country has increased to 29964 in 2017 as compared to 27669-27719 in 2007.
|West Bengal (North)||300-350||647||488|
|Total for North-East||9305-9355||9239||10139|
|East||West Bengal (South)||25||#||194|
|Total for East||2633||2865||3128|
|Total for North||1726||1637||2085|
|Andaman & Nicobars||–||–||25**|
|Total for South||14005||15650-16970||14612|
Elephant habitats are notified as Elephant Reserves which are basic management unit for elephant conservation and managements. A total of 33 Elephant Reserve have been notified in the country with the area of 80777.778 Sq.km. Three Elephant Reserves namely Lemru in Chhatisgarh, Agasthiyamalai in Tamil Nadu and Terai elephant reserve in Uttar Pradesh have been notified with an area of 6265.319 Sq.km. in the last two years.
List of Notified Elephant Reserves in India (As on December, 2022)
|S. No.||Elephant Reserve||State||Date of Notification||Total Area
|1||Rayala ER||Andhra Pradesh||09.12.2003||766|
|2||Kameng ER||Arunachal Pradesh||19.06.2002||1892|
|3||South Arunachal ER||Arunachal Pradesh||29.02.2008||1957.50|
|6||Kaziranga – Karbi Anglong ER||Assam||17.04.2003||3270|
|18||Garo Hills ER||Meghalaya||31.10.2001||3,500|
|24||Nilgiri ER||Tamil Nadu||19.09.2003||4663|
|25||Coimbatore ER||Tamil Nadu||19.09.2003||566|
|26||Anamalai ER||Tamil Nadu||19.09.2003||1457|
|27||Srivilliputtur ER||Tamil Nadu||19.09.2003||1249|
|28||Agsthyamalai ER||Tamil Nadu||12.08.2022||1,197.48|
|29||Uttar Pradesh ER||Uttar Pradesh||09.09.2009||744|
|30||Terai ER||Uttar Pradesh||2022||3049|
|32||Mayurjharna ER||West Bengal||24.10.2002||414|
|33||Eastern Dooars ER||West Bengal||28.8.2002||978|
(Source: WII ENVIS)
The Ministry has established an “Elephant Cell” at the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), Dehradun as a Technical wing of the Project Elephant Division to provide technical inputs to the Ministry for strengthening the efforts towards conservation of elephants, both in the wild and in captivity. The Elephant Cell also provides field-oriented trainings to the Protected Area managers and frontline staff of Elephant Reserves in India and also enhances their capacities for managing the elephant habitats, populations and other related issues. Some of the workshops organized by Elephant Cell, WII during the period 2022-2023 are as follows:
- Stakeholders workshop on 30th November, 2022 for finalizing the Zero Draft for Management Effectiveness Evaluation (MEE) of Elephant Reserves.
- Refresher’s course on Elephant Healthcare and Managerial Practices for Veterinarians of all Elephant Range States, organized during 22nd-28th November, 2022 at Assam Agricultural University, Guwahati, Assam.
- A three days Orientation workshop for the Mahouts and Elephant handlers from 3rd-5th December 2022 at Dudhwa Tiger Reserve, Uttar Pradesh.
- Capacity building workshop on minimizing Railway – induced Elephant mortalities for the officials of Indian Railways during 1st-3rd February, 2023 at Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun.
- A three days workshop on mainstreaming management of the Elephant Reserves for the Elephant Reserve Managers from 13th-15th March, 2023 at Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun.
Monitoring of Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE) Programme
Mandated by COP resolution of CITES, MIKE program started in South Asia in the year 2003 with following purpose — To provide information needed for elephant range States to make appropriate management and enforcement decisions, and to build institutional capacity within the range States for the long-term management of their elephant populations. The main objectives of the MIKE are:
- To measure levels and trends in the illegal hunting of elephants;
- To determine changes in these trends over time; and
- To determine the factors causing or associated with such changes, and to try and assess in particular to what extent observed trends are a result of any decisions taken by the Conference of the Parties to CITES
MIKE Sites in India
- Chirang Ripu (Assam )
- Dhang Patki( Assam )
- Eastern Dooars( WB )
- Deomali( Arun Pradesh )
- Garo Hills ( Meghalaya )
- Mayurbhanj( Orissa )
- Mysore ( Karnataka )
- Nilgiri ( Tamil Nadu )
- Shivalik( Uttarakhand )
- Wayanad( Kerala)
Major activities and achievements of the Project Elephant during the last two years:
- The Ministry has developed and released the Land Use Land Cover (LULC) analysis of the Elephant reserves and shared them to the States for better understanding in the changes in the landscape and taking appropriate measure for their conservation and habitat management.
- An ATLAS of Elephant Reserves in India with necessary details was prepared using remotely-sensed geospatial layers, for wider dissemination and information.
- Elephant habitats are notified as Elephant Reserves which are basic management unit for elephant conservation and managements. A total of 33 Elephant Reserve have been notified in the country with the area of 80777.778 Sq.km. Three Elephant Reserves have been notified with an area of 6265.319 Sq.km. in the last two years.
- The Ministry has initiated the field groundtruthing of elephant corridors across the country. Till now, 135 Elephant corridors have been groundtruthed and works are going on to complete the rest of the corridors.
- A field manual for Managing Human Elephant Conflict to frontline staff for managing and preventing Human-Elephant effectively has been released in Assamese, Malyalam and English languages.
- The Management Effectiveness Evaluation (MEE) plan for the Elephant Reserves (ER) in India has been released.
- Issued an advisory to all the Elephant Range States in August, 2022 to initiate necessary actions regarding the conduction of Elephant post-mortem by a panel of 3 veterinarians in presence of two representatives of civil society (working in the field of wildlife conservation) nominated by the CWLW of the State.
- The Ministry has initiated the development of a genetic database of captive elephants across India through DNA sampling. Till now, database of more than 300 captive elephants have been created and recorded through Gaj Soochna App. which has been developed in collaboration with the Wildlife Institute of India.
- Improving the welfare conditions of the captive elephants is one of the stated objectives of the Project Elephant, MoEF&CC. Therefore, a book titled “Caring for elephants: Managing health and welfare in captivity” on various aspects of captive elephant management lucidly has been released which is highly relevant for field officers, veterinary professionals and elephant handlers.
- Released an Advisory for DNA Profiling of captive elephants during transit from one place to another in October, 2022.
- Regular capacity building workshops have been organized for sensitizing mahouts, veterinary officers, filed officials and staff of line departments such as railways, power, NHAI etc. for protection and conservation of elephants in India.
- To recognise the good practices adopted and outstanding works done by Forest guard/Watchers/Trackers/Zoo Keepers/Mahouts of FD/Forest Vet and communities for protection and conservation of elephants and its habitats, Gaj Gaurav awards were presented to 1-1 Mahaout each from Kerala & Assam and Malasar community of Tamil Nadu on 12th August, 2022 during the World Elephant Day by the Hon’ble Minister, EFCC.
Gaj Utsav, 2023
The Project Elephant which was launched in the year 1992 has completed 30 years in 2022. The Project Elephant working under the MoEFCC has ramped up initiatives pertaining to elephant conservation during the last few years. To commemorate the 30 years of Project Elephant, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Government of India and the State Forest Department, Government of Assam celebrated the Gaj Utsav, 2023 at Kaziranga National Park, Assam during 07th & 8th April 2023. The programme was inaugurated by Smt. Droupadi Murmu, Hon’ble President of India.
The Gaj Utsav, 2023 celebrations begun with the cultural programme at Kohora, Kaziranga National Park on 06th April, 2023. The inaugural session of the Gaj Utsav, 2023 was held on 07th April, 2023, followed by organization of the 18th Steering Committee Meeting of Project Elephant and Plenary Session on “Taking the Elephant Conservation Forward in Modern India”. The Gaj Utsav, 2023 ended with a 3 technical sessions and discussion on the matters related to Elephant conservation in the country by comprising experts from the Government of India, State Forest Departments, scientists, bureaucrats, policymakers, lawmakers, NGOs, and members of civil society. All the discussions resulted into recommendations on various aspects of Elephant Conservation.
During the event, the following publications were also released by Smt. Droupadi Murmu, Hon’ble President of India:
- Field manual for managing Human–elephant conflict (Assamese language)
- Management Effectiveness Evaluation (MEE) of the Elephant Reserves in India
- Necropsy and carcass disposal of Asian elephant: Recommended Operating Procedure