“It is tragic that people make elephants run like rats by throwing fireballs at them”

Between 2015 and 2019, 62 elephants were killed by trains in India and more than 1,700 people and more than 300 elephants died in encounters with each other. The human-elephant conflict is real, and, in most cases, humans are to be blamed for it. In the name of development and wanting more coal mines, factories, railway lines and wider highways, we have entered the homes of elephants and we blame them for coming out and destroying paddy fields and harming humans. In one of the chapters of her recently published book Wild and Wilful, Neha Sinha, conservation biologist and author, has documented many heart-breaking stories of elephants and their calves falling into mine pits, getting crushed under trains or sustaining burn injuries because of fireballs thrown at them. On this World Elephant Day, The Good Story Project interviews Neha Sinha to understand how deep-rooted the human-elephant conflict is and challenges of wildlife conservation.

In her book, which came out in February 2021, Sinha has documented stories of crisis involving iconic species found in India – the Indian leopard, the Asian elephant, the Bengal tiger, the great Indian bustard, the white-bellied heron, the amur falcon, the Ganges river dolphin, the king cobra, the tiger butterflies, the rhesus macaque monkeys, the rosy starlings and the magarmach – and how development has been and will continue to be a silent killer of these iconic species.  

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The elephant is our national heritage animal, yet, today only about 27,000 wild elephants remain in India, as opposed to a million a decade ago. We have entered the homes of elephants in the name of development. How can we undo the damage already being done?

There is a lot of conflict between people and elephants in India. Other than the elephant conflict that happens in terms of people and elephants encountering each other and getting hurt, there is another kind of conflict. A lot of planning has been done in areas where elephants live and many mines, industries, factories, railway tracks and highways have come up in these areas which is detrimental to them. The elephants must walk to find food and water. But, with their habitat shrinking, they have to walk through and around the obstructions made in the name of development. This leads to disasters. Let me give you an example. In 2015, the elephants near Kaziranga in Assam encountered something novel – a wall meant for a township and a golf course. The wall was a part of the elephants’ walkway. For days, they made attempts to cross this barrier. Many photos emerged and in one of the pictures, a calf was seen trying to break the wall with his tiny head. The calf was later found dead next to the wall having suffered a haemorrhage.

In another instance, in 2019, villagers in Naxalbari in North Bengal tried to push off a herd of elephants from their paddy fields by throwing fireballs at them. Scared, the herd moved towards a railway line. The entire herd crossed the line, but a young calf could not as there was a steep incline. The calf scrambled down the slope and got hit by a train that came rushing towards it. His mother Ganga – an extremely loving and caring mother figure to the entire herd – died saving her child.

There have been many instances where elephants have sustained injuries or have died because of people chasing them with sticks or throwing firecrackers and fireballs at them to shoo them away. It’s tragic. The elephant is our national heritage animal, and we make them run like rats. They are very emotional animals. They have long memories, and they remember tragic incidents. They are also sharp enough to pass on this information to their young ones. The elephant chapter in the book is the longest one. It was difficult for me to write stories so full of tragedies.

Ganga and her calf. Both were killed by a train in 2019. Image credit: Avijan Saha

Last year, during the nationwide lockdown, there was outrage when an elephant died after consuming a cracker-filled pineapple. People could express their anger because the incident was reported. Many elephants die a silent death, and we don’t get to grieve for them. What should be done to keep the human-elephant conflict debate alive?

There was outrage because the elephant was also pregnant. We must understand that at any given point in time, a female elephant is either pregnant or is a caregiver. They have long pregnancies and because they are big animals, the young ones stay with their mothers for a few years. So, a female elephant dying is extremely tragic. It was terrible the way that pregnant elephant died after consuming the pineapple which was a bait bomb. People reacted the way they did was because everybody likes the idea of a mother and the mother being a caregiver.

People should understand that elephants are not trying to harm them. By entering their fields, all they are doing is trying to survive. They enter the fields because it’s easy nutrition for them and because their habitat has shrunk. There is no need to kill them or be so unkind to them. However, instead of merely saying that farmers should not harm them, we need to have a system in place. For any kind of conservation, we need political will as well as support from people. We need to take some hard decisions. To begin with, we cannot have more highways and coal mines in elephant areas.

Author and conservation biologist Neha Sinha and her book

Your book – Wild and Wilful – documents stories of conflicts involving some of the iconic species found in India and how they are on the verge of extinction. Tell us more about your book which you started writing during one of the gloomiest chapters of our lives – the pandemic-induced lockdown. How difficult was it to a write about wilderness while being confined to four walls of your home?

I did a lot of fieldwork for this book and started writing it in the end of 2019. I wanted to finish it by mid-2020 but the pandemic happened, and things became difficult. I wanted to visit many more places while writing this book, but that did not happen. I am a wildlife person and I need to be outside. It was tough writing this manuscript sitting at home!

This book is about the wild and I have been to deserts, mountains, rivers, woodlands, lakes and political capitals to bring you the stories of India’s wildest citizens, along with some remarkable people who share insights on, and their lives with, these animals. In the book I have written about the Indian Leopard, the Asian elephant, the Bengal tiger, the great Indian bustard, the white-bellied heron, the amur falcon, the Ganges river dolphin, the king cobra and the spectacled cobra, tiger butterflies, rhesus macaque monkeys, the rosy starlings and the magarmach or the Mugger crocodile. The book loosely follows the structure of Earth, Sky, Water and Heart. It is divided further into the places where the animals are found. Under ‘Earth’, we have political capitals, deserts, woodlands and forest, under ‘Sky’, we have birds and butterflies that spend days migrating between countries or states. Under ‘Water’, we have ponds and rivers. Under Heart, we have urban jungles, the places many of us live in.

A leopard seen in a tea garden in North Bengal. Image credit: Avijan Saha

Which chapter of your book is your favourite and why?

The elephant chapter is the closest to my heart as I felt very emotional while writing it. However, I also like the butterfly chapter. The butterflies are so whimsical and mysterious at the same time they are so beautiful and fragile. Their stories are so fascinating! For instance, the black and orange-coloured monarch butterflies, found in America, migrate not just over countries but continents! They start from Canada, avoiding the cold, and reach Mexico where they cover fir trees in millions. A single butterfly cannot complete this intercontinental journey. On the way southwards, the butterfly lays eggs, caterpillars emerge, and new butterflies are born. Hence, the butterflies that reach Mexico from Canada are third or fourth generation butterflies!

Which species mentioned in your book requires our immediate attention?

It would definitely be the great Indian bustard (GIB). There are about 100 remaining in India and that’s the entire global population. Over the years, their habitat has shrunk considerably. Earlier, they were found all over Central India, the Deccan Plateau, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, and Uttar Pradesh. Now they and found only in Rajasthan and Gujarat. However, the solar and wind energy plants that have come up in the deserts of Rajasthan and Gujarat are the latest threat to them. The plants are not a problem, the real problem are the wires that carry the power to energy grids. The GIBs never evolved to dodge these wires. They are the heaviest flying birds on earth, so they lack the speed and manoeuvrability that other birds have. The Supreme Court has directed the governments of Gujarat and Rajasthan to lay high voltage power lines underground in the habitats of the bird to aid in its conservation efforts. We should have implemented this yesterday. We cannot afford to lose more GIBs. In 2019, a centre was set up in Rajasthan. Here, birds are hatched from eggs, chicks are raised, and ultimately, they all are released back into the wild. This is a good first step.

The Great Indian Bustard. Image credit: Dhritiman Mukherjee

India had 1.2 million snakebite deaths from 2000 to 2019. Hence, there is a tendency to attack and kill snakes. However, there is also a section that worships snakes. We have a similar love-hate relationship with elephants and monkeys. Does this make their conservation difficult? 

Yes, we do have a bipolar perspective on many animals. We kill cobras, but we also kill the rat snakes, that are not even poisonous. We worship elephants and keep them in temples, which is incorrect. They are wild animals, and it takes years of beating before they become the way they are seen in temples. All this is done in the name of culture. However, culture should be progressive and not stuck in a time capsule. Having said that, there are genuine problems and conservation cannot happen if we ignore these problems. There is a reason why people kill snakes. So instead of blaming them, there is a need to create awareness. Just like the covid vaccine is not an option, having an antidote (drug, chelating substance, or a chemical that neutralizes the effects of another drug or a poison) available in places which have snake bite is not an option. However, at many primary health centres, these antidotes are either expired or not available. These problems need to be solved and not pushed under the carpet.

A King cobra. Imamge credit: Jignasu Dolia

We love discussing politics, current affairs, cricket or our Olympic wins over chai, coffee and drinks. However, grave issues like climate change, environment-related issues, human-animal conflicts and wildlife conservation are topics that don’t come up for discussion frequently. What should be done to change this?

A report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently mentions that India may see more heatwaves, landslides, droughts, rainfall, cyclones and agricultural and ecological droughts. There has been an increase in extreme events like excessive rainfall in the Himalayas and frequent cyclones. We are going to suffer financial loss and loss of livelihood because of these extreme events. Climate change is going to affect all of us, and we must take it seriously. Henceforth, our development plans should not disregard climate change. We shouldn’t be blasting the mountains in the Himalayas to make roads. We are aware. Acceptance is not a problem, but lack of action is. We want to continue to function like we have been functioning. We are already experiencing climate change, but the government is pretending as if it does not know. We are still planning dams in the Himalayas even though every year people are dying because of floods and landslides. We need a greater citizen movement. Societal pressure will lead to the government acting. But for that to happen, people need to start talking and discussing.   

A mugger crocodile. Image credit: Neha Sinha

How should we train our children so that they start taking issues like wildlife conservation and climate change seriously right from a young age?

This is a good time. There are a lot more eco clubs than there ever were before. People are using Apps to identify birds, plants and insects. People are reading a lot more and taking up conservation and wildlife as serious hobbies. As for the kids, they need to be taken outside. I can not stress this enough. It does not matter where — in the wilderness, deserts, forests, grasslands. Seeing is learning and nature is very interesting. Something is constantly happening. Our children need to touch the soil, they need to feel the texture of the leaves. If we get them to do this, half the battle is won.  

“Our children need to touch the soil, they need to feel the texture of the leaves”. Image credit: Swati Subhedar

A million-dollar question. Can development and wildlife conservation go hand in hand?

Development is important. However, there has to be social and environmental conscience as well. If you are opening an industry that pollutes the water table, then find options for people living there and the wildlife. Don’t make things worse than they already are. There is lot of scope of sustainable development in India so we must start walking the talk now. We wanted to clean the Ganga and the Yamuna, but we have not managed to achieve that. The Ganga and Yamuna Action Plans are in place for years. We must act now. We must keep the eco-system intact. The more we disturb it, the more difficult life on earth is going to be.

Neha Sinha is an award-winning wildlife conservationist. She has studied biodiversity conservation at Oxford University, after winning an INLAKS scholarship, and works with the Bombay Natural History Society at present. She is also a noted columnist and has taught environmental politics at Delhi University. Wild animals are her favourite, followed closely by books.

Published by Swati Subhedar

Meaningful conversations, ginger tea, Maggi, playing Tennis, backpacking, travelling, exploring, photography, adventures, meeting interesting people, mountains, beaches, and dramatic sunsets ... these are just some of the uncomplicated things that keep me going.

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