The Giants of Chhattisgarh: The Elephant in the Alleyway

Once young, wild, and free. Rama.

After an introduction to the status of elephants in central India, focusing on the state of Chhattisgarh, I started collating available statistics to provide a summary of elephant populations, deaths due to man-made reasons, and human fatalities due to elephants, for the country. Much of this data was not actively provided by the Project Elephant, which it ideally should, but gleamed through from the Rajya Sabha Question and Answer session notes. The fact that questions on human-wildlife conflict resulting in animal and human deaths are frequently asked at India’s meeting of the council of states, shows that it is a pressing, political issue. Such information, collected through taxpayer money no less, should be available to the public without waiting for yearly sessions.

The elephant in the room is a poster summarizing publicly-available information on wild elephants of India and human-wildlife interactions resulting in deaths. A high-resolution poster is available for download.

In the previous article, I discussed that such information, made available in timely manner, can be important to garner attention and divert resources to where the issue is acute – whether for humans or elephants and often for both. With the available scattered information spanning a decade or more, we can say that elephant deaths due to man-made reasons are increasing: on an average, 102 elephants die every year; between 2009-2015, about 94 elephants died each year, now, between 2016-2022, 103 die each year. Human fatalities have gradually increased over the years: 493 people die in direct encounters with elephants every year. Both these numbers are staggering. To put it in a perspective, about 4% of the elephant population as per the 2017 estimate has died between 2012-2022, and human deaths due to elephant encounters are 174% more than those with tiger for the same duration of time (2019-2021). It is not fair to make such a comparison. Every loss of life is tragic and irreversible. I make it out of choice to compare the fracture between Project Tiger and Project Elephant. Through this essay, I explore how this divide is seen time and again, with respect to measures taken to highlight the issues in shared spaces, such as wildlife corridors.

In the last essay, I show that direct human-elephant conflict in central India, resulting in elephant deaths, happen outside of protected areas. With no distinct lines as they exist for tiger reserves, vast areas of the country occupied by elephants are a mosaic of varying densities of settlements, mines and dams, farmlands, livestock, forests, and rivers. One of the reasons the concept of corridors, discussed earlier, came to be was to provide passage for wild animals to cross through such landscapes into the islanded protected areas.

India has invested a lot of time and money understanding various aspects of wildlife corridors, publicly and privately. In 2005, government and non-government organisations together identified 88 ‘elephant corridors’ – highest, at 34, identified in the eastern states of southern West Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand, and Odisha. These were adopted by the 2010 Gajah report of the Elephant Task Force constituted by the then Ministry of Environment and Forests. Since the 2010 decade, there has been an uptick in research and conservation measures in corridors, with forests connecting tiger reserves gaining attention. In 2014, a comprehensive assessment called Connecting Tiger Populations for Long-term Conservation was published, providing a detailed look at 32 non-protected area forests recognized as corridors for wildlife, particularly for large carnivore, movement. Both, the tiger and elephant corridors, were considered to allow movement of wild animals as well as help reduce conflict – the latter particularly in case of elephants.

Kaziranga National Park represents a textbook problem of connecting elephant habitats; this photograph is looking south-east from the floodplains of the Brahmaputra towards the Karbi Anglong mountains, in between lies a major national highway, subsistence farms, tea estates, and villages.

Even as people have been relocated from such elephant corridors to make way for elephants or, as the earliest report was titled, to provide ‘right of passage’ to elephants, conflict has only escalated. Compared to the tiger corridors that have seen specific studies of habitat use, occupancy, conflicts, land use change, and so on, some of which I have been a part of, elephant corridors have received scant attention, not because there is little interest in these, it is because the legal provisions for tiger corridors have more fund allocations and most importantly because these corridors are proposed by the statutory agency, NTCA, even as many of the corridors are not functionally viable for tigers; an added relevance is the corridors connecting two protected areas, where bulk of conservation measures are focused.

There is an ongoing debate whether Project Elephant should be a statutory agency on the lines of the NTCA, even as elephant and human deaths increase. There is little to wonder why elephants haven’t received the attention given to the tiger: First, numbers. For every wild tiger, there are about 7.4 elephants in India. Second, also numbers. Unlike the tiger, tame elephants are still elephants, and thus any wild elephant, conveniently labelled rogue, after it is beaten into submission, remains a part of the count, so, even if true wild elephant population is declining, the tamed ones that are employed for tiger conservation and to further capture more wild elephants, remain a part of that estimation. And third, also numbers. Unlike the tiger, Project Elephant receives smaller share of fund. For instance, of the allocated budgets in Chhattisgarh, an average of 40% solely goes into compensation for loss of human life and property damage, leaving little for conservation and human-elephant coexistence.

Illustrating elephant population of Chhattisgarh, its proportion in the northern districts, and the available habitat.

This brings our attention to this space where elephants largely exist, at least in central India, not in inviolate spaces afforded by tigers, but in shared spaces between humans and human machinations. Fortunately, this also brings attention to India’s vast forest cover in shared spaces, protected not solely by law but also local communities, either as sacred groves the abodes of gods, as forests that provide livelihood, and as forests as an extension of India’s cultural identity. This is where most of the elephant corridors have been identified.

In 2022, WII published an atlas of elephant reserves of India, with a second-page disclaimer ‘subject to revision with further study and field verification’. It identified 31 elephant reserves. Within a few months, a second version of this report was published, identifying 33 reserves.  This includes two reserves in Chhattisgarh, Sarguja Jashpur Elephant Reserve [sic] (1143.34 sq km) and Lemru Elephant Reserve (1995 sq km), notified in 2011 and 2021, respectively.

The two elephant reserves of Chhattisgarh and other protected areas.

In the 2020 state-level elephant assessment, 72 elephants were found in Surguja Jashpur Elephant Reserve and 29 in Guru Ghasidas National Park, indicating use of at least two protected areas of northern Chhattisgarh. Despite this, conflict in the region is acute. Curiously, both, the 2023 Atlas of Elephant Reserves and the WII-run ENVIS website show different areas under elephant reserves: 1143.34 sq km versus 1048.30 sq km for Sarguja Jashpur (alternately spelled Surguja in the report, the correct spelling of the district), which is named under its original Badalkhol-Tamor Pingla-Semarsot, and 1995 sq km versus 450 sq km for Lemru, a large difference. In fact, it is not known what the area of these reserves are, given human settlements, farmlands, and other revenue areas within them.

Lemru Elephant Reserve in the larger Hasdeo Arand forest and mining areas around.

Lemru exists in the recently named Hasdeo Arand region of Korba, Surguja, and Raigarh districts, known for its coalfields of Hasdeo-Arand and Korba, both being mined currently despite fierce protests by local, largely tribal, communities who have lived in this part of central India for eons. Badalkhol and Tamor Pingla are both wildlife sanctuaries declared way back in 1975 and 1978, respectively, yet have been devoid of tigers for much of their existence, nor is it known how they fare on the conservation and protection evaluations.

Badalkhol-Tamor Pingla-Semarsot has done some restoration work for elephants and gaur, I know of this because I worked in the region. Lemru is showing some efforts to welcome wild elephants. But that is all. If Project Elephant came into being 19 years after Project Tiger, will Elephant Reserves take 20 more years to be at-par with Tiger Reserves? At present rate of mortality due to man-made reasons of 0.36% (a trend from 2009-2022), India would have lost 7% of its elephants by then – nearly 2,000 elephants, some landscapes seeing local extinctions. This is not to say that protected areas are a solution to protect elephants and mitigate conflict. Protected areas carry their own conflicts, especially when rights are ignored and if the process is undemocratic.

While existing elephant reserves are doing little to assuage conflict in northern Chhattisgarh, and I remain hopeful that they eventually will, the concept of elephant corridors in central India is new and worth exploring. In 2017, WTI edited the ‘right of passage’ report identifying 101 corridors, with a note ‘more corridors are formed only when more fragmentation of habitat has occurred.’ It identified two corridors in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh for the first time. In 2023, Project Elephant published a report on elephant corridors, identifying 150 corridors, 62 in addition to those identified in 2005, with a disclaimer ‘the number of corridors in the report is best considered a minimum.’ Nine corridors have been identified in central India, all in the state of Chhattisgarh, for the first time.

A sign indicating elephant crossing in Koriya district, saying "If elephants are seen on the main road while crossing, do not approach them and keep distance of 200 meters. Inform forest department officials if elephants are observed."

The report, however, must be considered with several caveats. At the outset, it states its objective to ‘just indicate the location’ with the exact bounds not provided; and ‘subject to modification … particularly in light of observed fluxes in elephant movement range use patterns … particularly true in case of elephant populations, which are often dispersing across landscapes with fluid home ranges as observed in the east-central region.’ This doesn’t quite sit well with the real story of elephants of the east-central Indian population, as I have indicated in historic and contemporary times: elephant movements here are more likely to have been driven by development-induced displacement, through socio-ecological systems providing the fluidity (barriers and corridors), not merely associated with fluid home ranges. In other words, the movement of elephants in central India is as much influenced by human-induced pressures on elephants than of freewill of the elephants. In fact, a WII study from Angul district in Odisha itself has identified presence of crops influencing presence of elephants in the region, and that connectivity should be ensured by not opening coal blocks for mining. Furthermore, the report relies on 2017 elephant estimates of 247 in Chhattisgarh, instead of on state-derived statistics of 393 estimated in 2020, but since the exercise was undertaken with state government and forester expertise, these 2023 corridors must have incorporated how the current elephant population treads.

Nine elephants corridors identified by the Project Elephant 2023 report (in green; reference given towards the end) including two in yellow identified by the right of passage 2017 updated report. Other protected areas with connections identified by the NTCA as tiger corridors.

In summary, the nine corridors are defined by how elephants traverse on forest department boundaries, described by the smallest unit of compartment and beat, using divisional boundaries to identify their locations. Unlike the tiger corridor report, it doesn’t identify villages in or around such corridors. For discussion, I categorise them into three clusters as per the district they occur in: five in Raigarh (three of which lead into Korba), two in Korba, and two in Surajpur (one of which leads in from Balrampur and another into Koriya). (Shown in green.)

Raigarh corridors: This crucial region is where elephants of Odisha migrate into Chhattisgarh, mostly from north of the Hirakud Dam, but also south of it which are not identified. These corridors pass through forests, farmlands, and settlements, towards Lemru Elephant Reserve, and into Korba district, with those entering in Mahasamund and Balodabazar not shown.

Korba corridors: These two corridors are sandwiched between Lemru to the north and Korba mines to the south, along the Hasdeo River. Interestingly, the major land use does not mention mining among forests, farmlands, and settlements, and are curiously named after Balco, the major mining company in the region, after which the forest range is named as well. (Imagine elephant corridors named after the very industries that displace them?)

Surajpur corridors: One of these exists between forests connecting Tamor Pingla Wildlife Sanctuary (part of the elephant reserve) with Guru Ghasidas National Park to the west in Koriya district, and the other connects the two sections of the elephant reserve to the east. There is no indication of routes taken by elephants from Jharkhand to Chhattisgarh.

Curiously, the Project Elephant report does not include the two corridors identified by the second edition of the right of passage report, Tamor Pingla Wildlife Sanctuary to Chanchi from Surajpur to Balrampur district and Chanchi to Mainpat in Surguja district. (Shown in yellow.)

Chhattisgarh's elephant corridors with respect to the larger landscape.

At first glimpse, this is a great start, even though this is the bare minimum, as the Project Elephant report itself admits. As mentioned before, it remains to be seen how elephants traverse from Jharkhand to Chhattisgarh, especially given that northern Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand are well connected through protected areas network. Furthermore, much of the elephants traversing west into Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, especially the latter, remain to be identified, even though it is well known which districts are prime cross-over regions for elephants – Gadchiroli in Maharashtra, and Anuppur and Shahdol, especially the way of Son River, in Madhya Pradesh from Koriya and Bilaspur (and Mungeli) districts of Chhattisgarh. Why would these be left out, remains to be seen.

What concerns me is how the report mostly gleams over the presence of protected areas in the region, they are not even shown on maps, although the 2023 atlas, published few months before, show protected areas as well as corridors. While this reiterates the fact that wild elephants mostly exist outside of these areas, these corridors act like alleyways connecting two forest patches that, in only few cases, connect two protected areas. This is unlike the corridors identified for tigers, and are drawn based merely on how elephants navigate through a physical space, with little information regarding human influence, as if it has no impact on which corridors they freely use; corridors they ideally should use; and corridors they are forced to use. Indicating whether the corridor is ‘active’ thus becomes redundant, given that movement here is identified as ‘regular.’

Chhattisgarh's elephant corridors with major mines and roads networks.

From the looks of the corridors in central India, it is evident that elephants are forced to use certain forests as corridors because of developmental pressures, whether dams or mines or human settlements, yet these are left out from identification of corridors. Two corridors in Raigarh, Charmar-Jingol and Nagdhara-Baraud, and one in Korba, Balco-Katghora, named after the mining company no less, skirt around mines, indicating, visually at least, how elephant movements are affected by developmental activities, yet no mention of it is done in the report. A cluster of three corridors identified in Paschim Singhhum district in Jharkhand, further east of Chhattisgarh, lead right around existing mining sites.

This then begs some questions: Does more corridors mean safe passage for elephants and reduced human-elephant conflict? Are there no lessons to be learnt from previous interventions in such corridors, given that conflict and deaths have only increased? Take the example of Assam. It ranks highest in terms of elephant deaths due to man-made reasons and third in terms of human deaths, despite seeing several interventions for corridor protection, including near Kaziranga, where land was purchased from local communities to allow passage to elephants, even as the areas adjoining this newly purchased corridor suffer crop damage.

Elephant corridors in Indian states, as identified by Project Elephant in 2023, reference given at the end. Elephant corridors are not related to elephant populations, elephant deaths, or forest cover; what needs to be explored is the fragmentation index with respect to elephant populations.

If these corridors were to ‘ensure genetic connection without which elephants will be extinct’ as the report identifies, these corridors would have (1) looked like tiger corridors, providing status of not only corridors but forests which they seem to connect, (2) acknowledged the 2022/2023 report on existence of elephant reserves which it omits, and (3) built upon and went a step ahead of the 2005 work and provided legal weightage to these corridors. But the step before this remains: elephant reserves, unless they are already declared a protected area as defined in the Wildlife Protection Act 1972, are not true sanctuaries for elephants.

Human-elephant conflict cases, as identified by Chhattisgarh forest department, for 2019-2021.

If tiger corridors connecting two protected areas with little physical or genetic linkage can be vetted by a statutory agency, why are elephant corridors being identified based on simplified methods? The report fails to identify any relevance in the context of elephant and human deaths due to negative interactions, these then are mere alleyways for elephants to pass from point A to point B, not from sanctuary A to sanctuary B, as is done for tigers. Jashpur, Mahasamund, Balodabazar and Balrampur, are districts that have shown significant property damage by elephants consecutively between 2019 and 2022, an issue I discussed in the earlier article, indicating high interaction between elephants and humans, yet these districts have been left out of corridor identifications. If a single tiger can define a corridors, why can't elephant movement, considered erratic or irregular, define a corridor?

Indeed, one of the biggest lacunas of this publication is that it comes with a big clause that this is not final. Its existence, then, has little value, for if this is to be used in the court to stop future mining in delineated corridors (three of Raigarh corridors sit on coal blocks), this clause nullifies the stand, making this entire exercise and time people spend going through it of little consequence. It indicates that Project Elephant, although it puts its name on its reports, does not vet its reports the way NTCA does, for whatever legal reasons, even as we run out of time to identify areas where their traversal has social and political, other than ecological, ramifications.

Two cows peacefully feeding on plentiful eichhornia in the marshes of Kaziranga.

The whole idea about elephant corridors should not merely rest on which forests elephants frequent, or which mines they skirt around – it should be about identifying least possible resistance pathways that reduces the dangers elephants and people face when they interact – isn’t that what the Gajah report was built upon? Without the added knowledge of the intensities of interactions, these are mere lines on a map as the report, unsurprisingly, itself identifies. The difference in recognition of corridors between the 2017 and 2023 assessments shows that there is a difference in consensus as to what constitutes a corridor, not only among non-government experts but also within the state forest department.

So far, central India has a lot of blanks on the map, even as the states are working towards minimising the unprecedented magnitude of human-elephant conflict. The report on elephant corridors is best treated as an interim placeholder. While a first step, it also indicates that much, much work still needs to be done. I will not speak of hope yet, for in showing this work as interim, it indicates how far we lag when it comes to addressing conservation in face of human-elephant interactions, with or without these corridors. The reason for writing this article is to provide an ongoing commentary on how elephant conservation shapes up in central India. As for when we can gain new and important insights for wild elephants of central India depends on when the new estimates for elephant populations are published.

Further reading:

Gajah - securing the future for elephants in India. The report of the elephant task force. Ministry of Environment and Forests. August 31, 2010.

Q. Qureshi, S, Saini, P. Basu, R. Gopal, R. Raza, Y. Jhala, 2014. Connecting Tiger Populations for Long-term Conservation. National Tiger Conservation Authority & Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun. TR2014-02.

Right of Passage: Elephant Corridors of India [2nd Edition]. Menon, V, Tiwari, S K, Ramkumar, K, Kyarong, S, Ganguly, U and Sukumar, R (Eds.). 2017. Conservation Reference Series No. 3. Wildlife Trust of India, New Delhi.

Wildlife Institute of India–Project Elephant Division, MoEF&CC. 2022. Elephant Reserves of India: An Atlas (Edition – 1/2022). Pp:99 (WII-TR NO/2022/26).

Wildlife Institute of India–Project Elephant Division, MoEF&CC. 2023. Elephant Reserves of India: An Atlas (Version – 2/2023). Pp:99 (WII-TR NO/2023/19).

EIACP Programme Centre "Wildlife & Protected Areas Management". Elephant Reserves. December 2023.

Project Elephant, MoEF&CC, Government of India. 2023. Elephant Corridors of India 2023 (Edition – 1/2023).