The Indian government has decided to take action to protect the nation’s population of Asian elephants. Now considered a “national heritage animal,” elephants will enjoy the same level of protection currently afforded India’s tigers.

One of the biggest threats to elephants comes from constant human encroachment into their territory.  According to a government task force commissioned to examine the issue, “Elephant habitats are under tremendous pressure. Rapid economic expansion and development pressures require far more attention than land use plans from an ecological perspective.” Another major threat is poaching. Because of the trade in illegal ivory, in some areas — such as the Periyar Sanctuary — there is a ratio of one male elephant per 100 females.

As a possible solution to some of these problems, the Indian government is creating a National Elephant Conservation Authority, or NECA. This government body would be charged with increasing the number of elephant reserves, monitoring elephant populations, combating poaching, intervening in human-animal conflicts, and protecting elephant corridors by regulating development activities and relocating local populations.

There are about 35,000 Asian elephants in India. Of these, 3,500 are considered “working animals.” Many of them work in temples, while others are kept in zoos and circuses. Environment minister Ramesh has expressed concern over the poor conditions of working elephants, and the elephant task force would like to see an end to keeping elephants in captivity. “It is not possible to put a blanket ban on captive elephants but eventually they have to be phased out. There is a need for some kind of regulation in this respect,” said Mahesh Rangarajan, a professor of history at Delhi University who heads the task force.

The beginning of that phase-out was supposed to begin last fall, when the Central Zoo Authority said it would start moving elephants from zoos and circuses to safari parks and sanctuaries. So far, that hasn’t happened, but maybe the elephants’ new national heritage status and the increased number of reserves will help put the plan in action. Tell India it’s time to remember their promise to captive elephants.

Rangarajan acknowledges that the elephants of India are not necessarily in danger of extinction. However, this in no way means the government is being premature in extending new protections to the magnificent creatures. It wasn’t until the 1960s and 1970s that the Indian government began to take tiger conservation seriously, and tiger populations suffered from this lack of concern. According to the Independent, the tiger population dropped from an estimated 100,000 in 1900 to a little over 1,400 today. The real number may be half that.

Perhaps if officials had acted sooner, India’s tigers wouldn’t be in such dire straits. Hopefully by acting now, the government has saved the Asian elephant from a similar fate.

Photo Credit: Andrew Gray