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In February 2010, the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India, issued an edict announcing the formation of a Task Force on Project Elephant. In the words of the memorandum, the objective of the Task Force is “to provide detailed recommendations to ‘upgrade’ the Project to bring about a more effective conservation and management regime for the species in India”. The same document also briefly mentions the constitution of Project Elephant in 1992, the need to strengthen conservation measures for a species that is of great ‘cultural significance’, and the problems facing the welfare and survival of the Indian elephant in India. In a sense, this memorandum encapsulates the entire issue of human-elephant conflict in India.The elephant must be conserved, not only because it is a biologically significant species, but also for its cultural importance. Conservation measures for the species have been in place for many years now but they have not been successfully implemented due to various reasons. Living peacefully with elephants is an end desired by many; the route towards this goal, however, is not yet very clear.
From historical times, the elephant has been a significant part of culture and life in India. People have domesticated and used elephants for various purposes, killed them for sport or to protect property and lives, and worshipped them as religious icons. Human-elephant conflict is implicit in many of these interactions and yet it was only with the turn of the nineteenth century that the conflict between the two species had acquired perilous proportions. Factors such as dwindling forest habitats and large-scale sport hunting during the British Raj have dramatically reduced elephant range and numbers and today, they are only found in the northeastern, northwestern, eastern and southern parts of the country. The remarkable technological progress of the 20th century and the enormous rise in human populations have led to increasing human habitations, reduction of forest cover and the extensive conversion of forest land to large swathes of agricultural fields. Although their numbers have reduced, elephants still require large areas to move around in for food and shelter,and this brings them into greater contact with people living beside forest areas, leading sometimes to crop raiding, injury or death to humans and other form of conflict.