It is clear to all conservationists that the “rise” of the population of tigers, rhinos, and lions is an extremely fragile trend (for example, see ALERT reports here, here, here, and here), especially when there are myriad infrastructure projects imperiling India's protected areas.
Big Questions about Elephants
But what about the “sharp increase” in the elephant population?
Nobody really knew what the Asian elephant population in India was in 1982. As late as 2004, leading elephant researchers Stephen Blake and Simon Hedges were saying “It is not possible to estimate the total elephant population of India or to compare population numbers among sites. Totals cited for India should therefore be regarded as educated guesses.”
My personal observations lead me to believe that there were more elephants in the 1980s than exist today and their habitat was definitely bigger and better connected.
In 2003, Dr. Sukumar made a “guesstimate” that there were 28,580 elephants in India. However, if the population had indeed doubled from 15,000 elephants in 1982 to 30,000 elephants in 2016, then the population should have been around 23,000 elephants in 2003.
Whether the 2003 “guesstimate” was an overestimation, or whether the suggested population growth rate of around 2 percent per year is an overestimation, we play with huge uncertainties that make sweeping statements dangerous.
In a model used by Dr. Sukumar in the 1980s and later, it was assumed that elephant populations had reached their maximum numbers in different Indian reserves -- the reserves were effectively saturated with elephants and could sustain no more individuals. But if this were so, then the only way the Indian elephant population could have doubled is if their available habitat had doubled.
And that simply hasn't happened. In the last few decades, the status of Indian protected areas has changed, but there was certainly no significant increase in elephant habitat.
Indeed, human pressures on India's environments have increased sharply in recent decades. The human population doubled between 1981 and 2011 and the country’s Gross Domestic Product has quadrupled since the 1970s. Both trends have accelerated the conversion of ecosystems for agriculture and the loss of native forests.