#ShockWildilfeTruths: Burning elephant calf photograph highlights growing conflict

2017-11-14 14:33 - Ishani Chetty
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Cape Town – A heart-wrenching image of an Asian elephant calf on fire has won the Sanctuary Wildlife photography award for 2017 and places a spotlight on the impact of human and wildlife conflict.

SEE: Animal Interactions: Elephant tramples tourists to death in Zambia

'Hell is here'

The horrifying image depicts the violence that lies between the wildlife and humans – the calf and its mother fleeing from a mob as they are thrown with flaming balls of tar is enough to send shivers down your spine.  

Entitled ‘Hell is here’ – a fitting label for the captured image as it depicts the reality of strife for both man and animal that occurs in West Bengal, India. The photograph was captured by Biplap Hazra who is an avid wildlife photographer.

The Sanctuary wildlife photography award was established in Sanctuary Asia, an Indian wildlife magazine. National Geographic photographer, Steve Winter acted as a co-judge on the panel to decide which photograph would take home the prize.

The image has spread across the world and highlights the tension between India’s locals and the wild Asian elephants. According to the India Environmental portal, there are 27 000 elephants in India and as the local communities grow – the encroachment on wildlife areas increases and causes conflict between the two ecosystems.

The caption of the photograph reads, “Behind her, her calf screams in confusion and fear as the fire licks at her feet. Flaming tar balls and crackers fly through the air to a soundtrack of human laughter and shouts”. Hazra’s words bring to life even more vividly the dire scene captured in the image.

Hazra went on to say in an interview with The New Indian Express, “I had never seen such an incident in the 14 years of my wildlife photography career”. He was shocked in the moment itself.

Hazra went on to say, “All my concentration was only on clicking the photograph.”

SEE: Elephant back rides under the spotlight as Zim tour guide killed 

A lack of conservation efforts 

Asian elephants are currently considered as endangered according to the IUCN Red list - due to loss of habitat, human encroachment poaching, and degradation. Male elephants are mostly poached for their tusks, resulting in an imbalance of species numbers -  further leading to a decline in numbers. The biggest threat to the species is the loss of natural habitat and the lack of integrated land use between countries and cities.

The Right of Passage study found that corridors are essential to a species survival as it provides movement, prevents extinction and increases the population. The Wildlife Trust of India facilitated a survey in August 2017 and found that although there are 101 corridors in India only 20 of them are free from human settlements.  It was also found that road infrastructure interferes with these corridors throughout India therefore hankering the species's movement and growth.

There are 488 elephants in West Bengal and this adds to the increasing conflict between human settlements and this pachyderm species. The clash between the two settlements spurs violence when elephants destroy homes, damage crops and endanger humans. The Ministry of Environment in India found that from 2016 to 2017, 259 people were killed by elephants and this has resulted in routine mob attacks against these creatures.

SEE: When an elephant says: Enough is enough

The biggest challenge that the conservation of elephants faces in India is the growing human population. This was made clear by the founder of Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI), Belinda Wright statement in the Guardian, “The shrinking of good quality habitats and access of the animals to movement corridors are absolutely critical for India’s conservation efforts and the future of its iconic mammals”.

Awareness must be spread on the increasing battle between wild animals and humans – the image captured by Hazar has shed necessary light on this and is a call for the government to play a role.

Hazar himself agress the government is responsible, “the ignorance and bloodlust of mobs that attack herds for fun, is compounded by the plight of those that actually suffer damage to land, life and property by wandering elephants and the utter indifference of the central and state government to recognize the crisis that is at hand”.

In order to tackle the problem – elephant reserves need to be established and human settlements that border on wildlife areas need to be reduced.  In order to tackle poaching and fragmentation – mechanisms regulating the trade of ivory must be put in place along with improved legislation. 

Added to this more sustainable measures must be taken to address the problem. 

SEE: Human-elephant conflict: Bees fight the sustainable battle in Kenya

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