A trip to India to see how we save the elephants

Baby elephants at the IFAW/WTI Wildlife Rehabilitation CentreIn the northeastern tip of India lies Kaziranga National Park, home to one-horned rhinoceroses, buffaloes, elephants, swamp deer and hog deer, along with a broad array of bird life.

Our safari there was a good, gentle reminder of the task ahead to protect these precious animals, with particular concern for endangered Asian elephants. 

Our long-term partner, the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI), had brought together Indian business leaders and experts from across the country, along with leading Bollywood star Dia Mirza, a passionate conservationist and animal lover who commands a big following in India and beyond.

The gathering was all about connecting business with the environment, in particular the need to secure corridors for elephants so they can move freely around their habitat, and to involve the next generation of business leaders in securing India's unique and vulnerable natural resources.

As an Englishman and of course a tea drinker, I was pleased that later that evening we met at an organic tea plantation adjacent to Kaziranga National Park. Tea is a very important part of the economy here, with plantations almost everywhere, but this is also something that proves challenging for wildlife. Leopards like tea plantation habitats and can live in harmony with tea workers (out of sight and avoiding humans), but once spotted, people want them removed straight away.

Another big issue is tea trenches, long channels that are dug all around the plantations to drain water away quickly after monsoons. They are only about one metre wide but are a big problem for young elephants who regularly fall down them and get stuck.

They are often injured and if their fall goes unnoticed, they are often left there helpless to die.

The author and Wildlife Trust of India’s founder and CEO Vivek Menon at Ram Terang villageThe next day we visited the Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation (CWRC), a joint project between WTI and IFAW, caring for injured and orphaned animals including leopards, gibbons, orphaned baby rhinos and baby elephants. One very young elephant we saw had just come in and was clearly in massive pain, on a drip and on strong painkillers.

I was shocked to hear he had been shot three times. We are unsure why; perhaps an act of revenge from a local farmer, maybe a poaching accident. Later that night I found out from the Park Director that he didn't pull through. I was devastated.

All the IFAW team know the realities of human-wildlife conflict and poaching, but seeing it first-hand like the dedicated IFAW/WTI team does every day is startlingly different.  The Director gave some sage advice that evening - to not be sad but to focus on the ones that we do save.

Nonetheless, I will forever hold the vision of that poor elephant suffering and will share it  all  I can to ensure we always push ourselves to do more  to help these vulnerable animals. 

The next day we were heartbroken to find out that a rhino had just been poached in Kaziranga. It really is an ongoing battle, and having leading conservationists, business leaders and NGOs right there doesn't change a thing. Only our actions will make a change. 

One of our partners in the Asian Elephant Alliance, Elephant Family had invited IFAW to help inaugurate a brand new elephant centre, dedicated to their founder Mark Shand who died in an accident in 2014. The centre, made possible by Elephant Family and our guest of honour Sir Evelyn de Rothschild along with IFAW/WTI, is to help captive and working elephants (although we don't agree with having elephants in captivity we cannot ignore them). Alongside the clinic is an education drop-in centre for the local community.

A long and bumpy trip on our final day allowed us to see how elephant corridors really work and how they can truly benefit the local communities. We visited Ram Terang village to officially hand over new homes to a community that had agreed to move out of a corridor area to ensure that elephants had free passage.

The villagers had been given new houses and agricultural land - something they were more than happy to relocate for.

I learned a lot from this visit about IFAW's important work in India in partnership with WTI. I saw first-hand the realities faced by wildlife here, and I saw that it takes a unified approach, some passionate people and a lot of funding to make positive change. I also saw that there is hope, and that working with the local communities is, as always, key.

But, time isn't on our side. If we want any of our friends, family and colleagues to be able to see this wonderful wildlife where it belongs then we need to act fast. 

--PM

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