CHENNAI: In the last three years, a whopping 126 people have died in elephant attacks in Tamil Nadu. Human-elephant conflict is increasing day by day, primarily due to change in land use patterns and fragmentation of elephant corridors, which are the traditional migratory routes of the gentle giants.
Though the forest department is doing its best to retrieve large tracts of forest land from the clutches of private landholders and keep elephant corridors clear of encroachments, there is more to done.
Commissioner of Land Administration (CLA) VK Jeyakodi recently cancelled the lease of 8,373.57 acres of forest land at Singampatti village in Ambasamudram taluk of Tirunelveli district and, in 2018, 27 resorts were sealed in the Nilgiris elephant corridors following a Supreme Court judgement. However, the fact remains that the State government has only notified four out of 12 elephant corridors identified in 2005 by the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI).
Now, the latest edition of ‘Right of Passage’, an 800-page study, published by the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) in collaboration with Project Elephant and the UK-based NGO Elephant Family, identifies five new elephant corridors in Tamil Nadu, taking the total to 17, of which four are shared by Karnataka and Kerala.
The study offers specific conservation solutions for the corridors but points to an inverse relationship between the forest cover available and the number of corridors in each region — the more fragmented the forest cover in a region, the more elephant corridors in it. Tamil Nadu has the second highest number of corridors in India after West Bengal.
Some experts blame encroachments into traditional corridors by education, hotel and religious institutions for the diversion of wild elephants from their migratory path into the human habitations. However, not enough action is taken against such organisations, some of which continue to construct buildings on their premises. “If the forest department is really concerned about human deaths and wants to prevent deaths and injuries, elephant corridors should be retrieved immediately,” opined Coimbatore-based wildlife activist K Mohanraj
“The elephant is a keystone species and the animals travel several kilometres based on the availability of food and water. Thirty years ago conservationist ERC Davidar had identified elephant migratory path (along with SF number) in Kallar corridor and urged the government to retrieve the land for smooth access of the elephants. Ten years ago, WWF and ATREE had conducted a study on the same corridor and wanted the government to acquire the land as well. However, nothing has been done so far. In Kallar corridor alone, the government urgently needs to acquire 300 acres that is currently patta land, poremboke land, and plantations of areca nut and teak. If the government acquires the land, the pachyderms can move freely into the Kallar corridor and travel up to Silent Valley from Nilgiris district and Mannarkadu district,” he said.
“Many elephant corridors are shared with neighbouring States like Karnataka and Kerala. Notifying them is a tedious task. The high priority and problematic corridors in Nilgiris have been notified and further development has been arrested. There are others which are very small and cared for. Compared to other States, we are doing well but of course, human disturbances remain a challenge,” a APCCF ranking official in forest department told Express.
South better than north
In comparison, South India has managed its elephant corridors better than other parts of the country. Almost all elephant corridors in south India (93 per cent) are used by elephants, while in northern West Bengal 86 per cent are regularly used; 66 per cent of corridors are regularly used in northeastern India. As per the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the population of Asian elephants was about 41,410 to 52,345 and of that, India alone accounts for nearly 60 per cent. Also, as per the last elephant census conducted in 2017, the southern region has the highest elephant population (11,960) followed by the northeast region (10,139), east-central region (3,128) and northern region (2,085).
In southern India, there is one corridor for every 1,410 sq.km of available elephant habitat, while in northern West Bengal there is one corridor for every 150 sq.km, resulting in heightened human animal conflict.
“All the corridors in northern West Bengal (100 per cent) and almost all in central India (96 per cent) and northeastern India (52.2 per cent under settled cultivation and 43.4 per cent under slash and burn cultivation) have agriculture land. About 72.7 per cent of the corridors in northwestern India and 32 per cent corridors in southern India have agriculture land,” the study states.
South India also hosts country’s best elephant reserve — The Brahmagiri-Nilgiris-Eastern Ghats — which extends from the Brahmagiri Hills to the south through the Eastern Ghats in the states of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, with a splinter group in Andhra Pradesh and has a distribution of 6,300-6,500 elephants over 12,000 sq km of habitat. A number of the Protected Areas including Bandipur, Nagarahole, Mudumalai, Wayanad, Biligirirangan Swamy Temple, Kaveri and Brahmagiri fall within the area. The diversity in vegetation, ranging from dry thorn forest to the montane shola grasslands, make this one of the best elephant reserves in the country with a demographically and genetically viable population. This is the largest population of elephants in the country and possibly in Asia as well.
Too close for comfort?
Coimbatore district in Tamil Nadu has alone witnessed 77 human deaths between January 2011 and December 2018. As many as 61 persons were injured in wild elephant attacks in the same period.
Moreover wild elephants have entered agricultural fields in the Coimbatore forest division as many as 2,421 times and damaged property at least 216 times since 2011.
The pachyderms that rampage through agricultural crops are a daily headache for farmers. They have tried to fend off jumbo incursions with electric fences and Elephant Proof Trenches (EPT) on the forest boundaries, but the jumbos have damaged the fences and filled soil in the EPT. Project ‘Kaliru’, a stakeholder-inclusive initiative, too failed to yield results. Elsewhere in the State, farmers despair that the animals are no longer easily frightened by crackers or noise from the Yanai Peepi, traditional methods of chasing off elephants. Meanwhile, some farmers have even dropped doing agriculture after the animals started visiting their land frequently, leaving those continuing to cultivate in no mood to tolerate the elephants’ incursions.
“Not just Chinna Thambi and Vinayaga, we will demand the forest department relocate elephants out of Coimbatore forest division in future too if the animals start raiding crops and can’t be chased away by the forest department,” stated P Kandasamy state general secretary of Tamilga Vivasayigal Sangam, which played a key role in relocating both the wild elephants.
Mitigation measures by forest department
1. To prevent the elephants straying into agriculture lands, so far, 2,073 km Elephant Proof Trenches (EPT) and 1,368 km of solar fences have been created under various schemes.
2.EPT are found to be effective in preventing the movement of elephants from forest to the farm lands and human habitations, but require regular maintence mainly de-silting.
3. Government has sanctioned Rs 1.25 cr for maintenance of EPT and solar fence. Currently, EPT work is underway in Coimbatore, Dharmapuri and Dindigul, while solar fence work is ongoing in Kalakkad Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve, Vellore, Madurai, Dharmapuri, Dindigul and Anamalai Tiger Reserve.
(with inputs from S Senthil Kumar @ Coimbatore and S Raja @Theni)