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Pachyderms, poop and plastics: Read all about it
Indian elephants and pristine forests endangered by lack of waste management.
(A native of England, Matthew Diebel is a veteran journalist who has worked at NBC News, Time, USA Today and News Corp., among other organizations. Having spent his childhood next to one of the world's fastest bodies of water, he is particularly interested in tidal energy.)
Elephants are big. They need lots of food. And when they notice that humans throw quite a lot of it away, they say to themselves something like, “Why turn down a free meal?”
Which is why elephants in India — they’re the Asian variety with the smaller ears — are prone to do some dumpster-diving in the garbage piles that are typical on the outside of rural villages, where trash collection is rare.
And the modern-day Dumbo and his pals are not fussy. That plastic bag? It doesn’t take away from the taste of that no-longer-needed naan bread. Those throwaway knives and forks? Hey, they add a bit of crunch to that discarded curry.
Which is how the synthetic scraps end up in the jungle. “When they defecate, the plastic comes out of the dung and gets deposited in the forest,” said Gitanjali Katlam, an ecological researcher at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.
According to The New York Times, Katlam first noticed elephants feeding on garbage on trail cameras during her Ph.D. work at the university and went on to study and write a paper about which animals visited garbage dumps at the edge of villages. At the time, she and her colleagues also noticed plastics in the elephants’ dung.
They also found the same materials a mile or two into the forest near the town of Kotdwar, but the elephants probably carried the plastic much farther, Katlam said, explaining that the elephants take about 50 hours to pass food and can walk six miles to 12 miles in a day, and worrying the scientists because Kotdwar is only a few miles from a pristine national park.
But it’s not just the littering she and her colleagues are concerned about. With plastic comprising about 85% of the waste found in the elephant dung from Kotdwar, the pachyderms may be ingesting chemicals like polystyrene, polyethylene, bisphenol A and phthalates, she said, leading her to worry that they may contribute to declines in elephant populations.
To lessen the threat to both the environment and the animals, Katlam told The Times that governments in India should take steps to better manage their solid waste to avoid these kinds of issues and also urged private citizens to separate their food waste from containers.
“This is a very simple step, but a very important step,” she added.
Dumbo and his friends would agree.