IDUKKI: Sure, the three wild elephants have been driven back into the forests. But not deep enough for people to ease off into a comfortable night’s sleep. Having thrown normal life adjacent to the Kalladikode and Malampuzha forests out of gear for over a week, the pachyderms are not in a mood to give up the food and water on offer in human settlements all that quickly. When last heard, they had moved back into the fringes of the man-animal conflict zone. Express examines the travails of both man and beast along the disrupted corridors of elephant movement.
The Western Ghats is bleeding, literally. The man-animal conflicts have resulted in a bloodbath in the Western Ghats, especially in Munnar. So far, the loss of life has been tallied at three each on both sides this year. While elephants killed three humans, men took the lives of three jumbos in 2017. The blood-soaked battle goes on.Elephants foraying into human settlements and people’s efforts to get rid of the wild raids have taken a turn for the worse this year in Chinnakkanal, Marayur and Devikulam areas in Idukki district. For the elders of the region, this is something unprecedented. The conflicts have never lasted for such a long period and they have never suffered such a huge loss in recent years.
According to the Forest Department, as many as five people lost their lives and several were injured over the past 13 months in Munnar Division. Crops worth thousands of rupees were damaged along with houses, shops and vehicles by the beasts. However, given the fact the state has the highest number of wild elephants, the man-jumbo encounters in Kerala are less compared to other states. What is the reason behind the sudden spurt of attacks? Forest officials, local residents and environmentalists believe the main reason is the rampant destruction of the elephant corridors between the Anamalai Forest Area and the Periyar Tiger Reserve (PTR).
The Broken chain
In 2002-03, the then UDF Government had set up a tribal settlement named 301 New Adivasi Colony in the catchment area of Anayirangal Dam in Chinnakkanal grama panchayat. The government offered one acre each to 301 families after prolonged and sensational protests of tribals led by C K Janu. Out of 301 families who settled here, only 26 remain now. The reason? Enraged over breaking their corridor, jumbos took six lives over the years and injured many others in this settlement. According to a doctoral research conducted by M Rameshan working at Centre for Earth Science Studies (CESS), Thiruvananthapuram, the five new tribal settlements set up by the government after 2003, are in high conflict prone zones.
“The traditional elephant corridors were rampantly destroyed in Chinnakkanal with superfluous encroachments and construction of resorts,” he told Express. “Elephants coming from Anamalai via Mattuppetty usually take the Old Devikulam-Club Mahindra Resort-Chinnakkanal village office route or the Gundumala-Kolukkumala-Pappathichola-Thideer Nagar path to reach Anayirangal Dam. Both these routes have now been invaded by resorts and human settlements. The unscientific tribal settlements augmented the crisis,” Rameshan said.
The rate of forest fragmentation and depletion of shola forest, grasslands and fuel wood plantations was high after 1990s, shrinking crucial elephant habitats and blocking their paths resulting in high conflict condition. The once continuous belt of evergreen forests in the high ranges has given way to cardamom plantations in many places. The geo spatial analysis of conflicts shows 85 per cent of the settlements at Anayirangal fall under high conflict prone zones except Pachapulkudi. All the newly-assigned tribal colonies are in the same zone. The percentage area of very high conflict prone zone is high in 301 New Adivasi Colony and Chinnakkanal New Adivasi Colony along the catchment area of Anayirangal reservoir.
Never-ending Woes of Anayirangal Residents
Spread across 114.09 sq.km (11,409 hectares), Anayirangal Valley lies at the juncture of Kannan Devan Hills and Cardamom Hills in Munnar. Anayirangal, which means ‘elephants coming down’ is known to be a resting place of pachyderms during summer. But uncontrolled construction, rampant encroachments and human interventions disrupted their natural habitat.
There are 19 settlements in the immediate catchment area of Anayirangal reservoir, including five old tribal settlements, five new Adivasi colonies, nine non-tribal settlements and small towns spread across 6.42 sq.km. The result? Many areas, including Singukandam, Chinnakkanal, Thideer Nagar, B L Ram and tribal colonies have become high conflict zones. “When encroachments commenced and people started protecting their estates and cardamom plantations with electric fencing, elephant paths were cut forcing them to move on to human settlements,” said Michael Raj, a resident of Chinnakkanal. “With the organised encroachers driving the elephants away from their areas with firecrackers, loud noise and camp fires, it triggered behavioural changes in elephants and they started attacking people.”
As per the official records of the Forest Department, six people lost their lives and 17 persons were injured since April 2015 in Munnar Forest Division. The department paid a compensation of Rs 3.88 lakh for the crop loss in 2016-17 fiscal alone. This apart, 40 houses have been damaged in three years. The only solution is to offer a hassle-free path for pachyderms between Chinnar and PTR. According to Chief Wildlife Warden K J Varughese, corridor breakage in Anayirangal can be addressed by clearing the path at Meesappulimala. “The department is pressing for an elephant sanctuary in Chinnakkanal-Anayirangal Valley.”
“A Rs-100 crore project is currently underway to construct protection walls along the forest boundaries. Of this, Rs 25 crore has already been sanctioned and work is underway. The department has been exploring various options like solar fencing, trenches, elephant wall and rail fencing. Depending on the geography of each region, sufficient measures are being taken. At the same time, we should not forget the reasons why they are forced to come into human habitats. Many a time, elephant corridors are being blocked by man-made barriers, forcing these animals to deviate from their natural path. In Idukki and Wayanad, the forest boundaries have not been earmarked properly. The department is also going for measures to ensure elephants get sufficient water and food within the forest. Preserving water resources within the forest and growing more natural forests will help in this direction.”
Forest Minister K Raju