India will declare the elephant a national heritage animal, to focus more attention on the need to conserve the species, whose numbers have been dwindling.

India is home to more than half the Asian elephants left in the wild, making it a critical battleground for the survival of the animal. It is the animal on which kings once rode and which carried warriors to the battleground. Outside popular hotels in towns and cities frequented by tourists, bedecked elephants still give visitors a ride.

But conservationists have raised the alarm, saying India's 26,000 elephant population is under threat.

A recent report by a government-appointed panel says the elephant has failed to receive the kind of attention given to endangered species such as the tiger, because the decline in its numbers has not been as dramatic.

Mahesh Rangarajan is lead author of the report by the Elephant Task Force. He says the elephant does not face a crisis of numbers, but a crisis of attrition.

"Up to now the emphasis has been on assessing how many elephants there are," said Rangarajan. "As you are aware, elephant is a long-lived species and it is equally important as it is to know number, to know the age classification. We may have a population of say a 100 elephants with very few young calves or the calf mortality may be very high. Similarly the sex ratio may be skewed."   

As with other endangered species, the prime threat to the elephant is the loss of their habitat. Villages and farms are pushing closer to the edges of forests. Roads and rail networks are expanding to cater to the needs of development. Industrial and mining projects are reaching far-flung areas.

Conservationists say elephants are particularly vulnerable because they need huge tracts of land to support them. But forests are getting fragmented, restricting the animals to smaller areas.

Vivek Menon at the Wildlife Trust of India says they have asked the government to create a network of 88 protected "forest corridors" which will allow elephants to travel safely between forested areas in search of food.

"These are not huge chunks of land. They are just narrow strips of land which connect larger habitats. Because they [elephants] are large, they need huge amounts of food," Menon said. "If you leave them in one place, they eat the forest out. If you allow them to move, this allows the forest to come back and then get back. It is a natural cycle."

Conservationists have also emphasized the need to curb poaching by giving forest guards better training and more modern equipment. The male elephant, which has tusks, has been targeted for its ivory. This has drastically skewed the ratio between male and female elephants and, in some places, there is only one male left for as many as 100 female elephants.      

The government has said it will soon declare the elephant as a national heritage animal. This will give these animals the same importance as is presently given to tigers.

Conservationists say that India is in a unique position to save the elephant because of a centuries-long cultural association with the animal. In the Hindu majority nation, one of Hinduism's most popular gods, Ganesha, has an elephant head.

Menon of Wildlife Trust of India says the elephant is seen as a wise, sagacious animal across the country's diverse cultures and communities.

"It is not only Hindus who have respect for the animal," Menon added. "Among tribal communities in the northeast, they have a word which roughly translates into elder brother for the elephant. In Kerala, Hindus, Christians and Muslims use the elephant in religious processions. It is something that, from childhood, people tend to love not fear."

Conservationists are optimistic that, if adequate measures to protect the elephants are taken, it will avert the kind of crisis which is faced by species such as the tiger and ensure that Asian elephants overcome the threat they face.