India: Rajaji National Park and survival of the last remaining species of elephants

India’s Rajaji National Park is one of 24 major wildlife reserves in
India. Just as the Corbett National Park, 225kms away, is famous for
its tiger population, this reserve is known for its high Asiatic
elephant population. The 825 square kilometer area also houses 23
other mammal species including tigers, leopards and the Himalayan
bear, as well as 315 bird species.

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The 25-year-old Rajaji National Park, named after independent India’s
second governor-general, Chakravarti Rajagopalachari (1878-1972),
reflects the urgency to preserve the Asiatic elephant. In fact, the
reserve has 10 million-year-old fossils of 50 species of elephants.

Only one of those 50 elephant species now survives as the Asiatic
elephant. I took the 19km route to the Rajaji National Park entrance
near Haridwar, one of the oldest living cities of the world. The
proposed US$13 million flyover across the Rajaji National Park would
prevent elephant deaths, say senior Forest Department officials, a
frequent tragedy as elephants cross the highway and railway track
running through the wildlife reserve or run into the traffic between
the nearby pilgrim towns of Haridwar and Rishikesh.

The flyover will feature two corridors, each 1.2 kilometers long and 100 meters wide, and is expected to be ready in nine months, soon after India’s Supreme Court consents to the plan from the National Highway Authorities of India.

The jumbo flyover is another step towards saving the Asiatic
elephant, scientifically called Elephas Maximus, whose current
population is estimated to be only around 45,000, compared to 600,000
African elephants.Even though the larger African elephant population
has also dramatically shrunk from about five million between the 1930s
and 1940s, wildlife conservationists say the African jumbo (Loxodonta
Africana) does not face the threat of extinction as seriously as its
smaller Asian cousin. Possible dangers include poachers murdering
elephants for their ivory, which sells in the illegal market for
US$1,000 a tusk. Elephants also run into conflict with encroaching
villagers across eastern India, from Uttarakhand to Chattisgarh and
Assam states. It’s a violent, vicious cycle with fatalities on both
sides. Villagers complain of elephants ravaging their crops and
fields, and the jumbos are angry at having their traditional habitat
invaded by humans. Electric fences, as well as frightened villagers
lighting fires and beating drums to scare away elephants at night,
have limited success. India’s elephant flyover could bring greater
peace to the Rajaji National Park area that covers the three districts
of Dehradun, Haridwar and Pauri Garhwal of Uttarakhand state.

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