The Giants of Chhattisgarh: An Overview

Elephants and Chhattisgarh: An Ongoing History

The elephant population assessment report of India is due for over a year, and it is likely only next year that we will see the numbers. Much has happened since the last update in 2017: About 1,160 elephant died in the 2010 decade mostly due to human-related causes (500 in the last five years alone since the last report) [1, 2] – that’s 4% of the 2017 population of elephants, at 27,306 for the country. On the other side of this equation, 4,000 people died in the last decade (1,500 people in the last three years alone) due to human-elephant conflict [3, 4], and an estimated 10,000 sq km of crop fields are damaged by wild elephants every year [5]. Overall, over 100 elephants and 400-500 people die every year, making human-elephant interaction an important issue to address.

The delay in the assessment report, therefore, is a matter of concern. Much of wild elephant boundaries have been redefined –  in Central India, from seven in the last assessment of 2017 the number is around 60-70 in 2023 for the state of Madhya Pradesh, similarly, Chhattisgarh has seen an increase from 247 in 2017 to about 393 in 2020 – both due to immigration and emigration. Such information, while it rests with the respective state governments, is scattered and largely inaccessible to the public. To make specific decisions based on their unique behaviours, which herds are (and aren’t) doing such migrations is not known, rendering elephant conservation and conflict mitigation an ad hoc measure – a feat, but a hit-or-miss strategy that comes at a cost. It seems as if the seriousness of such information being made available to the public is being taken lightly.

The overview of elephant population distribution in India as per the 2017 assessment.

Frankly speaking, the overall picture of how many elephants, where about, and what they be doing, is not informed for public decision-making. For those who work regionally on elephant conservation (mostly against big infra) and human-elephant conflict (HEC) mitigation and for those who provide information on the big picture on giants of the country, this delay is discouraging.

In the last few weeks, elephant deaths of unnatural causes and of people dying from elephant attacks from the Central Indian region of the state of Chhattisgarh has been frequent in the news. This state is crucial because of its historic association-dissociation and recent re-association with the wild elephants, much of which I have discussed earlier [6]. Other than man-made reasons, this is possible because Chhattisgarh’s hills and forests are contiguous with extant elephant populations to the east, of Jharkhand and Odisha. The state is also curious because elephants seldom traversed to its west – towards Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, until very recently, with which it shares contiguous forests as well. Thus, apart from acting as a habitat for elephants, Chhattisgarh also forms a crossroad between the east and central India. Despite its importance, this is perhaps the most overlooked region when it comes to elephant conservation and HEC mitigation.

This article aims to provide an overview of the elephants of Chhattisgarh based on information available in the public domain. Specifically, I look at (1) the overall presence of elephants and their gross distribution in the state, (2) prevalence of HEC, (3) reported cases of elephant deaths, (4) a look at existing mines with respect to HEC, (5) elephant migrations, (6) a closer look at a few districts showing higher HEC, (7) role of PAs in elephant conservation, (8) the major threats to elephants, (9) ongoing HEC mitigation measures, and finally (10) what more needs to be done.

The 390-odd elephants of Chhattisgarh are not uniformly distributed in the state, and the constant immigration and emigration keeps the population in a flux, from about 275-393, with some putting the higher-end of the estimate for 2023 to 500. Even within the state, the elephants move about, changing areas within and between districts, making it difficult to give a more precise distribution of populations. In the year 2020, the year of the pandemic, an estimated 393 elephants were present in Chhattisgarh, 75% of them in the northern districts, summarised in the map below. During the pandemic, elephant movement increased, made possible during the lockdown phase, changing the district-wise statistics.

Elephant population assessment as on November 2020, as assessed by the state.
(District boundaries prior to 2021-2022 revisions.)

To present a more general picture based on media reports for the last three years, I map where elephants are in terms of their presence, identifying clusters of districts as permanent where they move about within the region, frequent where they visit often, transient or semi-permanent where they pass through, and uncommon or no-occurrence regions where they rarely, if ever, visit.

Elephant presence as per media report records for the last three years.

This has allowed visualising elephant presence in the state – much of the populations are in the northern seven districts (now split into several more districts), where herds of more than 20 are common, but the elephants really roam in more than half of the state, from as small a herd as seven to as large as forty-five members. Of course, this map is not static. Elephants move vast distances within a day, and thus such clusters are bound to change – it is a static view of the dynamics of elephant behaviour, availability of safe space and food, and barriers to free movement. It does, however, provide an overview for discussing related issues.

The second dimension was prevalence of HEC, including injury or loss of human life, damage to property, and crop damage. In the last five years, 296 people have lost lives due to elephant encounters in Chhattisgarh compared to 462 in Jharkhand and 518 in Odisha, the neighbouring states [7]. In 2021 alone, 64 people lost lives in Chhattisgarh, 113 (the highest in the country) in Jharkhand, and 112 (second highest) in Odisha. Every incidence is a grim reminder of human-wildlife interactions. While this entire eastern region is a hotspot of HEC, Chhattisgarh presents a more acute problem – even if there are lesser number of cases, it is proportionally as high in terms of human-elephant interactions as that of Jharkhand. In other words, even if Chhattisgarh has fewer elephants, its conflict cases resulting in human deaths is, albeit only slightly, proportionally high, indicating higher interactions despite having comparatively smaller elephant population. This means that the dynamics of HEC resulting in human deaths are different for the three states and require further investigations. The seven northern districts with permanent elephant presence show 46% area under forest cover – higher than the state’s 41%, but also a higher population of Scheduled Tribes communities at 48% - much higher than 31% of the state’s population. Some argue that HEC is high, particularly in northern Chhattisgarh, because of higher human population, which is not true. The seven major districts have population density of 158 persons per km, compared to the state’s 189 persons per km and much lesser than the country’s 481 persons per km. This region has seen most human deaths from marginalized communities, particularly of people belonging to the Scheduled Tribes, who rely on forests culturally and economically. This social dynamic so far has received little attention, but plays an important role in conflict mitigation.

Prevalence of human-elephant conflict cases (combined for human injury and loss of life, property and crop damage) as per government records.

The overall HEC reported cases for loss of human life, damage to crops and property, are summarised for Chhattisgarh’s districts. In the last three years (2019-2021), nearly 20,000 cases were recorded in Surajpur district – the highest in the state, followed by Jashpur at 10,000, Korba at 9,700, Raigarh at 9,500 and Surguja at 7,000 – these districts have shown significantly acute HEC incidences which corroborates with permanent presence of elephants in the region. Within this small time frame can be glimpsed the dynamics of HEC: while some districts like Balrampur, Koriya, Surguja, and others have shown a gradual increase in HEC cases, districts like Surajpur, Jashpur, Korba, Raigarh, and Mahasamund have shown declines – with some showing significant drop, from 4,618 to 75 for Mahasamund and 2,212 to 481 for Korba districts. This is possibly linked to elephant movement, the seasons of cropping, and their regional interactions, and might only be temporal in nature with a chance of an increase in the future as elephants move. It remains to be seen how HEC mitigation measures are helping reduce negative interactions.

The third dimension I wished to explore was of elephant deaths, mainly of human-related causes such as accidents and deliberate killings. Between 2014 and 2021, 702 elephants have died linked to HEC – 500 in the last five years due to electrocution (348), train hits (80), poaching (41) and poisoning (25) in India [2]. While it is said that most elephants today die of human-related reasons [8], it is yet to be recognized as the leading cause of elephants facing metapopulation or landscape-level extinctions. Chhattisgarh has recorded deaths of 77 elephants between 2018-2022, with about 15 elephant deaths on an average every year, a majority due to human-related reasons. Comparatively, 80 elephants die per year in Odisha (est. population 1,976), a significantly high number, and about seven in Jharkhand (est. population 679) [7, 9].

General locations of 12 cases of elephant deaths in the last one year marked by a red pin in relation to the forest cover and Protected Areas of Chhattisgarh.

There is scarcely any information on when, where, and why these deaths occur. As per Chhattisgarh Vidhan Sabha question-and-answer session dated December 20, 2020, between 2019-2020, 28 elephants died, a majority from northern Chhattisgarh region: seven from Surajpur, five from Korba, three each from Raigarh, Balrampur, Surajpur, and Gariaband, two from Mahasamund, one each from Dhamtari and Surguja.

Reports of elephant deaths, much like reports of human loss of life, are scattered in local and national dailies, making it difficult to keep a tab on in public domain. I found twelve cases of elephant deaths, between October 18, 2022 and the most recent, October 10, 2023. Nine were due to human-related reasons, one from poisoning and eight from electrocution, and two from natural reasons, in-fighting and age-related. Most were from the regions identified as permanent presence and higher HEC; three each from Jashpur, Surajpur, and Raigarh, two from Korba, and one from Baloda Bazar. Most reported deaths were of adult male and female elephants between 20-70 years of age (most between 40-45). All human-related deaths were avoidable. The one stuck with me is the death of a calf in Korba. It was reported that a few people saw elephants near Bania village close to the Hasdeo Reservoir. Some people baited fodder with poison consuming which a calf died, which was buried at the farm. On a tip-off, the forest officials discovered the carcass and were able to apprehend twelve persons [10]. On October 10, carcass of a 40–45-year-old male elephant was found in Dharamjaigarh Forest Division in Raigarh district, dead because of coming in contact with a live electric line. The 11 kV electric lines that provide electricity to human settlements have turned into death-traps for elephants, largely due to poor construction and maintenance of these lines. This elephant, a part of a herd of seven, apparently touched a sagging live wire and dropped dead. It hurts to see an elephant die, with electrocution, it just hits different: as soon as an elephant so much as grazes against a high voltage wire, they just drop dead – a five-ton sentient being just gone, and with it a generation of nature’s wisdom. At least one elephant died every month or two like this in Chhattisgarh – six have died within this year in Raigarh district alone (of which I was able to track four).

The fourth was to see whether there is any correlation between HEC and mining in Chhattisgarh. The idea that elephants are displaced by mining operations is well established, especially in the eastern states of Jharkhand and Odisha, forcing them to migrate to other regions. However, it is poorly studied whether mining in a region itself exacerbates HEC. All roads of logic and reasoning lead to it, but it remains to be seen if it really is so with empirical evidence. It is especially unknown and remains unaddressed in Chhattisgarh.

Correlation of human-elephant conflict and existing mines.

Looking at existing (and recent) mines and the districts with more than 1,000 cases of HEC reported over the last three years, there seems to be a strong correlation to HEC with existence of mines, especially in the northern districts. I call it a correlation because it is not certain mining is alone or is a major cause of increased HEC, but it is likely to play an important role in leading to it. Mining itself acts as barriers to elephant movement. The associated infrastructures such as roads and railways further act as blockades, making their local peregrinations concentrated in certain regions, increasing prevalence of conflict. Since conflict information is not available for a more critical analysis, I leave this as a hypothesis that HEC is, indeed, exacerbated by presence of mines.

A snapshot of human-elephant conflict prevalence and existing mines in northern Chhattisgarh districts.

The northern districts point to a compounding effect of higher HEC incidences – not only are elephants resident here at present, mining is also prevalent, which may be having a compounding effect bringing people and elephants to interact more frequently than other parts of the state – a case, I reiterate, requiring further investigation.

This brings me to elephant migrations with respect to Chhattisgarh. Elephants of this region have been generally observed to move east-to-west, from Jharkhand and Odisha to Chhattisgarh to Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. This is not a mass migration but as smaller units of herds as they move – locally covering small distances or regionally covering large distances – the latter displaying this general east-to-west migration. Of course, there are instances where elephants have moved from Chhattisgarh to Odisha, Jharkhand or Andhra Pradesh, but if we look at Chhattisgarh’s elephant population in the last 15 years, it has increased from 122 to about 393 to about 500 as per some estimates. Curiously, Jharkhand and Odisha also show an increase in elephants, from 624 to 679 and 1862 to 1976, respectively. It remains to be seen how elephant population dynamic plays out over vast spatial scales.

Indication of the general immigration and emigration of elephants to and from Chhattisgarh in relation to elephant presence for the state.

There is clearly a dynamic at play here beyond birthrate, which remains to be explored across large and dispersed elephant populations. It is established that elephants of Jharkhand and Odisha are moving into Chhattisgarh, some even traversing across to Vidarbha in Maharashtra and eastern Madhya Pradesh, especially along Maikal and Kaimur hills. While I cannot indicate where elephants enter or exit, it can generally be stated that elephant migrations follow routes where forests are contiguous, and that rivers are crucial passages for their travels, not barriers. Their migrations, however, are driven by human-related activities than they are by their own accord. Save for the peregrinations of bachelor elephants, herds move short distances over long spans of time. Yet, in this region, herds are traveling long distances until they find a region they can stay put in unless they are driven away. Much of the movement of elephants here, therefore, is not natural, but suited to prevent humans or are deliberately driven by humans. It remains to be seen how and where elephant population dynamics are changing between states and districts – which is why regular and scientific population estimations need to be undertaken and published.

The role of Protected Areas (PAs) in elephant conservation is recognized but not fully acted upon. Two – Tamor-Pingla Badalkhol Wildlife Sanctuary and Lemru were notified as Elephant Reserves in 2011 and 2022, respectively, but, without tooth and claw accorded to Tiger Reserves, these are paper reserves, doing little to protect elephants and mitigate HEC. Focusing on the northern region of the state, there are nine PAs, including Sanjay Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh contiguous with Guru Ghasidas National Park, Palamau Tiger Reserve and Palkot Wildlife Sanctuary in Jharkhand, and Debrigarh Wildlife Sanctuary in Odisha. Most of these PAs, except the tiger reserves, remain unassessed on the lines of All India Tiger Estimation, making it difficult to determine not only its mammalian diversity and abundance but also its vegetation type, diversity, biomass, levels of degradation. In short, it is not known how well-suited these PAs are to enable elephants to stay in a place for longer than they do now with respect to food and water and safety, nor is it known how adaptable the forests are to have elephants feed here for long durations of time. While small measures like plantation of paddy, maize, sugarcane is undertaken in non-PA areas to divert elephants from private farmlands, this isn’t an ecological solution but an ad hoc, expensive measure, which must be passed onto the PAs network – something I’m not sure has been done so far.

Protected Areas network of the northern districts where most of Chhattisgarh's elephants reside, mining is a major industry, and human-elephant conflict acute.

While elephants have visited and do live in such PAs like Tamor Pingla and Badalkhol, they do not use the habitat in the way that is expected. Empowering PAs to strengthen protection, control deforestation and man-made forest fires, and manage habitats for elephants, will help take off pressure on non-PA forests and reduce HEC. It is easier said than done, of course. Ad hoc measures are important, but one of the long-term solutions is a strengthened PAs network. Currently, much of HEC and most of elephant deaths are reported from non-PA areas – this is because elephants are not in PAs, they are out and about, as they should be, no doubt, but it is also because these PAs are poor in terms of, I assume for no concrete data exists why this is so, what they have to offer to the elephants – food, water, and safety.

A range of threats to elephants in Chhattisgarh force elephants and people together, leading to higher incidences of HEC and elephant deaths than would be. I discuss three. One of the major threats encompasses the whole eastern region of over 3,000 elephants, between Jharkhand, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, and Madhya Pradesh. This population has gradually increased from 2,300 in 1993 at a time when mining operations, big infra projects such as roads, railways, canals, and major dams, came into being, restricting elephant movement. In perspective of Chhattisgarh, immigration exacerbates human-elephant interactions, driven by big infra works in the east. However, this threat should be seen collectively, not only because Chhattisgarh’s elephants themselves are facing the same threats within the state, but because it is a bigger problem of the cost of extractive industries on natural heritage. The big question of this decade is not how humans and elephants coexist given such pressures on natural spaces, it is to ask what the cost of this kind of development is.

For elephants, the challenge of how to navigate is an issue. While big infra presents a multidisciplinary problem to tackle, the pressing one is overhead electric lines. It is crucial to repair and refurbish these to increase height and to insulate the wires, beginning from forest areas. This has been suggested plenty of times but has received no attention nor penalties despite elephants dying of electrocution every one or two months. A legal case must be pressed whenever an elephant dies by coming in direct contact with sagging overhead wires, as it is done for intentional live-electric wire traps under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. No accountability for long has led to many deaths, and a strong, legal stand must be made to ensure this does not happen again and again. In addition, such high voltage (11 kV and 33 kV) lines which provide electricity must be mapped and monitored when dealing with elephant movements.

Poaching for tusks perhaps goes under the radar. While cases have been cracked in Odisha and Jharkhand, it is not clear how much of a problem it is in Chhattisgarh. To think that it is a non-issue is a folly. Elephants have been massacred since historic times, and there is no way to believe that it doesn’t pose a threat here. Poisoning in retaliation for crop damage is known from the state, but poaching for tusks is not so far in the public eye. While forest officials ensure that such crimes are brought to justice, the state needs security assessments with respect to elephants on the lines of tigers.

There are several interventions in place in the state to reduce HEC. Some may be more effective than others, but that remains to be seen. It is worth noting that the state has left no stone unturned to mitigate HEC. The interventions, however, are scattered across spaces. One of the earliest was the use of kumki elephants to drive wild elephants away from human settlements [11], which is still in practice where HEC is acute. The elephants are sourced from other states and are looked after by mahawats (mahouts). The state has several of its own camp elephants, but they are usually associated with a PA. For long-term monitoring, the forest department has put together a team of residents where HEC is acute, called Hathi Mitra Dal – the Friends of Elephants Group [12] – (also called Anti-Depredation Squad) equipped with bare necessities such as torches, fire-crackers, and speakers, they help drive elephants away, especially during the cropping season, and are quite effective at reducing HEC, but it is a long, tiresome work, and wages minimum or it is a voluntary task. Hathi Mitra Dal, fully equipped and well-paid, is possibly one of the best ways to mitigate conflict and ensure safe passage for elephants of Chhattisgarh. Another long-term project is to study elephant movement in-tandem with live-tracking them. This study is led by the state government in association with government institutes and NGOs.

Very little is known about the results of this more-than-five-years-old initiative, scarcely anything has been published so far. A report by the National Remote Sensing Centre states that such a project maintains elephant movement patterns and points of conflict incidences – why this information remains hidden, which is collected using taxpayer money, and which can be put to good use to derive solutions collectively by the public, I fail to understand. Anyway, a small report of such an expensive undertaking has helped understand how elephants move and use the habitat in Chhattisgarh [13]: Based on five radio-collared elephants, the report states that the elephants spend 18-20 hours per day feeding. Between 10 AM and 12 PM, the elephants seem to sleep, staying in forest areas between 3 AM and 4 PM. They were found to raid farmlands between 6 PM and 1 AM, or were known to enter human settlements between 5 PM and 3 AM, usually around 11 PM. They found elephants to be most active during night time than during the day, and spent most of the time in forests than in farmlands, and least in scrublands, with an increase in farmland raids during October-January. From the five radio-collared elephants, they determined home range of about 2,892 sq km. Much could have been said in this report, but such is the case to go with, for now. The forest department is also using elephant movement information, provided by Hathi Mitra Dal and from radio-collared elephants, to inform locals of elephant whereabouts, through daily time-specific radio broadcast and SMS service. I have listened to the broadcasts and found them quite useful.

Lighting of dark areas frequented by humans and elephants alike has been undertaken in some regions. Community engagement has been integral to HEC mitigation in the state, and recently, an AI-powered module has been developed to provide live details of elephant presence directly on phone, it is one of the latest early warning systems aimed at reducing HEC [14]. Trenches and solar fencing are region-specific, and it remains to be known why these are not effective. For post-conflict compensation, an ex gratia amount is provided for crop and property damage and injury or loss of human life. On the death of a person, Chhattisgarh currently provides ex gratia amount of Rs. 5.75 lakhs (Rs. 575,000), among the lowest provided to the kin on loss of a family member due to a wild animal encounter. Odisha provides Rs. 6 lakhs, Jharkhand 6.5 lakhs, Madhya Pradesh Rs. 8 lakhs, and Maharashtra Rs. 20 lakhs (These are the latest revised amounts, proposed or implemented). All these states are among the top ten in terms of forest diversion for developmental projects [15], for which they receive large amounts as compensatory afforestation payments. I fail to see why Chhattisgarh provides such a small sum for such a pressing issue. Even if the loss of life cannot be compensated – and while some in the field of conservation even argue against it – it is perhaps the least that can be done for the family of the deceased.

The long-term solutions are possibly the most ‘unseen’ – so to speak. Habitat restoration, including creation of watering sources during dry season, is acknowledged as a part of the solution to reduce HEC, and is undertaken in bits and pieces across PAs and non-PAs. On an experimental basis, Chhattisgarh explored providing paddy to wild elephants in hopes of reducing their reliance on farmlands, but instead of exploring growing paddy in non-farm lands, they put out sacks of grain, mostly from the surplus grown [16]. Suffice to say, it didn’t work. This is not a solution to reduce crop damage and nor the wisest plan because human food is never in surplus.

Population trend of the Eastern-Central India region as per elephant population assessments (1993-2017) and approximate estimates for Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh in 2023.

The elephant corridors have not been identified for Central India yet (west of Jharkhand and Odisha), which, I believe has been initiated, but has not been made public yet. It has been 30 years since elephants reclaimed Chhattisgarh again, and five years since a herd made Madhya Pradesh their home, yet, it remains to be seen why an important measure to protect elephants and focus mitigation strategies for the region, remains unexplored. I have made remarks against exclusionary ways of protecting elephant corridors [17]; such a strategy will not work in Central India, and therefore talks of elephant corridors should align with the local peoples’ aspirations (as against big infra).

Map showing identified 'elephant corridors' in urgent need of reassessment and revision, showing lack of information for Central India. For an interactive map, see Elephant Corridors of India: Asian Nature Conservation Foundation.

Most of these solutions summarised here come from the Gajah report and reworked over the years [18]. There are three that are relevant to Chhattisgarh, especially the northern districts, which need to be considered. For immediate response and intervention, the state needs live tracking of conflict cases and making the information public for better informed HEC mitigation, especially to engage corporates who wish to minimize conflict but generally to get a better understanding of the situation on ground. In the long-term, and I repeat what I’ve said before, the PAs need to be strengthened in terms of manpower, equipment, facilities and welfare and healthcare of its staff, such that the PAs are empowered to focus on elephants. Similarly, PAs networks in the existing contiguous forests also need to be strengthened for protection. Habitat restoration is a vital long-term solution to reduce HEC, but the focus should be prioritized for PAs and for non-PAs depending on local situations. And finally, there should be no compromise except for to increase the height of overhead electric wires, insulation of such wires in forest areas, and stringent legal action against those who turn it into a lethal weapon.

Much has happened since Chhattisgarh first commissioned a study in 2002 [19]. After this rapid assessment, a thorough study has never taken shape. There are several old and new publications on HEC mitigation [20], yet much of the speak is general. It is time elephant states make state-level action plan for elephant protection and HEC mitigation making sure the trans-boundary migrations of elephants between states come into picture with clear inter-state plans in place. (The information I collated in this piece is available as an excel document and maps as PDF on Google Drive.)

Every elephant that dies strips us of our natural and cultural heritage. It is not merely the death of an animal but the death of our identity, of humanity. The pictures I see of elephants dropping dead or slumped on their backs after getting electrocuted, their head held up lifelessly by their tusks, are too painful to watch. In one incidence, a young elephant curled up in its death the way baby animals (and humans) do when they are hurt. The news of people being mauled to death every other week are too much to take in. It makes me sad and furious. During first wave of the pandemic, as many as six elephants of Chhattisgarh died within a span of nine days, mostly of human-related reasons [21]. There is no doubt that the quest to protect elephants and reduce HEC is a complex one, requiring immediate remedies as well as long-term engagement across all stakeholders, but, and I reiterate, the delay in elephant population assessment is possibly the biggest highlight of how lax the treatment of India’s heritage animal is, so I end with this question: Are we waiting for elephants to drop to numbers as low as that of the tigers, or are we waiting for their total extirpation, the way our colonial rulers once aimed towards?