In January, a tiger entered Keljhiri, a forest village in the Harda district of Madhya Pradesh. Over three days, there were three instances reported of the tiger attacking people, with one person losing their life.

The state forest department deployed a team equipped with drone cameras to monitor and rescue the tiger, which means remove it from the village and shift it to a less human inhabited area. But all attempts were in vain.

To prevent further conflict, elephants were considered for helping the department in this crisis. Officials mount the elephants and that helps in patrolling the forest and monitoring the tigers in cases where doing it with vehicles is not possible. The department coordinated with Satpura Tiger Reserve, 150-km away, to send elephants. It took a whole day for trucks loaded with three jumbos, to reach the site. The elephants and mahouts, already tired in the journey, began the operation as soon as they reached the village.

In December 2019, in a similar situation, Satpura Tiger Reserve sent elephants on a 130-km journey to Bhopal to help in operations to rescue an injured tiger.

These incidents indicate that elephants are important for tiger rescue in the tiger state of Madhya Pradesh. The state had 526 tigers in the last tiger census released in 2018. However, the proportionate number of elephants needed to monitor tigers and conduct conservation activities is not adequate. According to forest department sources, the state has 52 elephants in captivity across all six tiger reserves, out of which only 35 elephants are fit to help in conservation activities. The rest of the elephants are either too old or too young to hit the ground.

Forest team patrolling with the help of captive elephants in Madhya Pradesh. Photo credit: Satyendra Kumar Tiwari

“There are 18 tigers roaming around Bhopal city, out of which around six have entered city’s boundaries from different sides,” said SP Tiwari, former chief conservator of forest, Bhopal. “From time to time, the forest range needs elephants to conduct rescue operations and avoid human-animal conflict.”

“Bringing elephants from other tiger reserves is not only time-consuming but also a costly affair,” he said, adding that Bhopal forest division needs at least two captive elephants only for observing and managing the tigers it has. “It takes two days to transport an elephant from nearby tiger reserves, which is too long if a tiger enters a human settlement. Elephants have to face a lot of humiliation during transport. As new mahouts are not well-versed with Bhopal’s forest, rescue operations are also affected.”

Importance of elephants

Elephants are crucial for patrolling some forest patches, especially in the monsoon season, said Umesh Kumar Sharma, field director at Madhya Pradesh’s Panna Tiger Reserve.

“Based on my experience, I can say that few forest patches are not coverable with the vehicle,” Sharma explained while talking about the shortage of captive elephants in Panna Tiger Reserve. “Also, we need to perform various activities, including tranquillisation for collaring and treatment, monitoring tigers’ movement, which is impossible without the elephant.”

“We have 14 elephants in reserve, but only five to six are available for patrol,” he added. “We retired an elephant this year, and another one is pregnant, so it is out of duty for a while.”

“In the rescue operation, vehicles are of no use as they make a lot of noise,” said former Chief Conservator of Forests Tiwari. “We need elephants to approach an injured tiger; one cannot risk going near the tiger without an elephant.”

A captive Asian elephant being transported back to a forest camp after the Dussehra festival in Mysore, Karnataka. Photo credit: Anand Osuri/Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 4.0]

“We need to cross all kinds of terrain in the forest,” said Vincent Rahim, an Indian Forest Service officer and former field director of Madhya Pradesh’s Bandhavgarh tiger reserve, who has recently taken up the post of Chief Conservator of Forest. “Elephants are the best for doing that. We can cross a naala (stream) with an elephant, but it is not possible with a vehicle. All-terrain vehicles may prove to be alternatives in the future. A tiger would never attack an elephant, so it is safe to perform duty with an elephant.”

Wait for tuskers

The state has been looking for tuskers for a decade. After a lengthy official procedure, the central government had given a green signal to translocate elephants from Karnataka to Madhya Pradesh, but the process is still ongoing. The Madhya Pradesh government has also approached Rajasthan, Assam and Andamans for elephants.

“We need around a dozen captive elephants, but as of now, there is no sign of hope,” said Alok Kumar, Principal Chief Conservator of Forest (Wildlife), in conversation with Mongabay-India. “Earlier, we approached Karnataka, but it seems we are not getting elephants from there. Now, the department is in communication with other states like Assam, Rajasthan and requesting to give captive elephants.”

In 2018, the forest department had rescued five elephants in Sidhi. Those elephants had entered human settlements in Madhya Pradesh from Chhattisgarh.

“I am not sure what will change if we get more elephants, as the availability of elephants is not the only issue,” said Sharma. “We need more mahouts for new elephants, who are also not easily available.”

Sharma pointed out another challenge related to captive elephants. “There are no institutions to train mahauts where the mahauts get training with the elephant,” said Sharma. “Making a bond with the elephant is an essential part of the training. Forest department recruits people as helpers (chara-cutters) and when they get training they are promoted as assistant mahauts. The job involves a lot of risk so there are few takers. They are mostly from mahaut families.”

“Captive elephant family is growing as an elephant is pregnant at Panna Tiger Reserve,” said Sharma. “Some young elephants are undergoing training and will be ready to hit the ground soon.”

Conservation debate

The poor condition of elephants in captivity is an ongoing debate, however. The 2020 issue of Journal of the Asian Elephant Specialist Group “Gajah” talks about poor care of captive Asiatic elephants across the region.

“Captive elephants, in general, are not fed in accordance with their nutritional requirements and natural food preferences, which is especially true in relation to elephants managed in zoos (Crandall 1964), Hindu temples (Krishnamurthy 1998, Vanitha 2007, Vanitha et al 2008) and private systems (Vanitha 2007, Vanitha et al 2008). Some captive facilities offer monotonous fodder round the year without seasonal change and in some cases in inadequate quantities,” according to one of the research papers of the journal.

The Madras High Court wrote on August 5, that it is time to stop more elephants from being domesticated or being taken into captivity, except in case of injury or disability, and that too, only by forest officials in special enclosures maintained in forest areas.

In 2018, the Supreme Court had ordered to undertake a survey on captive elephants. The census, undertaken on the orders of the Supreme Court, computed 2,454 captive elephants in 28 states and Union Territories. The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change told the apex court that 58% of all captive elephants are concentrated in two states: 905 in Assam and 518 in Kerala.

“Keeping elephants in captivity is a very old tradition in India, dating back to at least Maurya period, or perhaps much earlier,” said Vivek Menon, founder of Wildlife Trust of India and Chairperson of the IUCN SSC Asian Elephant Specialist Group. “However, most traditional uses of the past, such as warfare and timber logging, are no longer relevant.”

“They are used for tourism, religious purposes and for forest uses,” he said. “There is much recent knowledge that show that elephants are sentient beings and suffer in captivity. I do not endorse bringing more and more elephants into captivity. However, those that are there are best used in the forest for conservation purposes.”

“For patrolling in terrain that is difficult to access elephants are useful currently,” he added. “In the future, all-terrain vehicles could easily replace that.”

This article first appeared on Mongabay.