Poshan Outlook

In The Land Of Ganesha, Elephants Imperiled By Human Need And Greed

First it was the ivory trade that led to rampant elephant poaching. Now, as India presses ahead with its goal of growth, fragmented habitats lead the elephants into increasing conflicts with humans.

Poshan Outlook
Rathin Banerjee - July 23, 2020
In The Land Of Ganesha, Elephants Imperiled By Human Need And Greed

Dark foreboding clouds rushed in like a conquering army and overcame the sky, blanketing it from horizon to horizon. Then they released flashes of electric blue and pink lightning capped with furious claps of thunder that growled at mankind. Almost instantly conch shells were heard bellowing all over the neighbourhood. Someone was desperately ringing the bell of the local temple. The gods had to be propitiated. But gods are not always violent or revengeful, there are benign gods as well; for instance Lord Ganesha, the god with the head of an elephant who knows the secrets of acquiring wealth and showers his blessings on the lucky ones he favours. He is the God of riches, a snob, one may say because he ignores humans who fall beneath his divine vision, literally. Some distant incidences in the memory that were supposed to have been long forgotten swim to the surface now as we hear news of a female elephant dying from a booby-trapped pineapple in Kerala.

It happened one winter evening twilight on the fringe of Jaldapara Wildlife Sanctuary in North Bengal. A patrolling party of men riding elephants on duty were moving out, courting the freshly dug up elephant-proof trench along the forest-village boundary. The trench is the standard practice to dissuade the elephant and its family from crossing over into the lush green cultivated fields of the villagers. The contractor had left piles of dug up earth on either side instead of levelling it.

Aware of a late-night winter vigil, the men were in khaki woollens and armed. As a plan, the patrol moved in full view of the villagers on the other side of the trench, but a while later they abruptly stopped. A huge Makhna (male elephant without tusks) appeared within gunshot range, skirting the trench in an ambling gait towards the party. Its emergence on the scene had hitherto been obscured owing to a bend ahead in the trench, with the camouflaging verdure as a backdrop under weakening light. Almost instantly, binoculars picked up a human form; the bare body of a diminutive ascetic on the path of the Bull midway between the two.

The patrol swiftly turned away to oblige Ganesha with the right of safe passage. But the solitary figure stood incredibly transfixed. A horrific anticipation dawned on the party as the ascetic made no move to escape; it would anyway had been futile, the pachyderm had closed in fast, there was no way the man could outpace it. Facing his nemesis, he raised his hands folded in a pranam gesture to his forehead awaiting certain death. Was the man brave or simply mad? The Lord closed in, and then, picking up loose soil from a pile on the edge of the trench with its trunk, discharged the entire muck on to the figure that stood motionless before him; it then sauntered casually away ignoring the man with utter disdain. The ascetic had practically disappeared from torso upwards as the mud and dust covered him. With the blessings of Ganesha and with the villagers as proof, some of whom had undoubtedly witnessed the incident from the adjoining land, his fortunes had begun an upswing. But what about the fortune of the Ganesha?

Male elephants with tusks had been roaming around for centuries with a price on their heads; the larger the tusks the greater the threat. Belgians just could not stop the massacre of the noble animal in Congo. They collected hundreds of tons of ivory, yet that could not satiate their love for the tusks. Within Africa, the threat to elephants had reached to dangerous levels. It prompted Dr. Nelson Mandela to ban the sale of ivory. He had ordered the burning of tons of seized ivory to prevent its theft and clandestine sale. In India, poaching by the Veerappan gang picked up in the 1970s. It peaked in 1987—a period when 150 tuskers were slaughtered every year. The tusks were routed from Karnataka and Tamil Nadu to Kerala. From here it found its way to markets in the Middle East, and then shipped to Vietnam, China, and Japan. Elephant poaching increased nearly threefold between 1990 and 1996. Studies indicated that poaching is responsible for an eight per cent drop in the world’s total elephant population annually. The world woke up to the threat to the elephant population and declared an international ban on the sale of ivory.

The Government of India passed The Declaration of Wildlife Stock Rules, 2003. It held that any person in possession of any wildlife article shall declare its presence at any particular location along with information on the manner of its possession to the Chief Wildlife Warden of the State. On the conclusion of a satisfactory enquiry, the articles would be permanently marked, and no future applications would be entertained.

It is in the course of such enquiries that startling facts came to light. In Kolkata, the handful of few richest families in business possessed 70 per cent of the total ivory in the city, leaving aside other wildlife articles. One top business family possessed an ivory Ganesha weighing 32 kilograms! They had to use a forklift to place it on its hallowed pedestal. Without doubt the multimillionaire was amply blessed for his efforts. When informed that the ivory for the Ganesha idol had to come at a cost of at least five dead Ganeshas, he shrugged his shoulders. He would have had no means to imagine the scene when the forest crowns had quivered moaning in agony and utter grief and had bent down with dew dripping down its moist leaves to whisper a tearful murmur, “Quo Vadis Ganesha”. And that in reply, the God of fortune with blood oozing out of his temple, had uttered a name before it had drawn its last breath.

Thankfully, ivory trade has been checked in India. But the fate of the Indian elephant is far from safe. Increasing human population and the need for development is eating away into its habitat. India is pressing ahead with its goal of growth, as more roads and railway tracks snake through wildlife reserves. The elephant is a range animal. It transits between habitats through corridors. As communication networks increase and habitats get fragmented, the elephant increasingly has to confront man’s machines.

Sacrifices have to be made; the elephant is first in the line made to forgo its life, as the unwary animal gets hopelessly caught on the tracks. Records show that between 1987 and 2018, 249 elephants died on railway tracks. Accidents apart, fragmented habitats lead the pachyderms into increasing conflicts with humans. Mining blasts and pollution leads the animals to leave the sanctuary of the wilderness and forage on agricultural fields on the forest fringes. A majority of the population here constitute the backward and the poorest communities of India. Lord Ganesha does not reach out to them. His blessings are intercepted by those who are twice blessed, and he exhibits no action. The poor see this and understand, but the poor cannot stand as mute spectators when their entire year’s toil stands to be trampled and foraged by their god. They revolt against this injustice. People get trampled, fire balls flow through the air, country guns bark, and booby-trapped pineapples burst, shattering the calm and do its grotesque task. And a helpless Ganesha stands as one, ‘more sinned against than sinning’.

(The author is a retired Indian Forest Service officer. He has numerous publications in scientific journals in India and abroad. Views are personal.)