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Conflicts among man and elephants rise in Kerala as latter lose habitat

Nearly 140 people died in human-wild jumbo conflicts in Kerala in 7 years and fragmentation of forests, shrinking habitat and coming up of settlements in elephant corridors are being cited as reasons.

Published: 11th October 2021 03:46 AM  |   Last Updated: 11th October 2021 07:47 AM   |  A+A-

Herd of elephants

Herd of elephants

Express News Service

September 26: Couple Justin and Jini are on a motorcycle, going to the church for morning service when they are attacked by a wild tusker at Vallithodu Peringiri in Kannur, some 10km away from forest border. Justin dies on the spot. Jini is rushed to the hospital. Her condition remains critical.

September 23: Couple Viji and Kumar are returning from Tamil Nadu after visiting relatives. A wild elephant attacks the motorcycle-borne couple at Poopara near Anayirankal dam in Idukki. Viji, 35, is seriously injured and dies on the spot. Kumar escapes with minor injuries. 

August 30: It’s around 4am. Rubber tappers Sainudeen, 50, and Peethambaran, 56, are on their way to a rubber estate for work when a tusker attacks them at Palappilly in Thrissur. Both of them die. Human-elephant conflicts are seeing a steep rise in Kerala as fragmentation of forests, shrinking habitat and coming up of settlements on elephant corridors force wild jumbos to stray into human habitats.

Nearly 140 people have lost their lives in human-wild elephant conflicts in Kerala in the past seven years. Of them, 14 died in the past nine months. The rise in the conflicts has triggered protests by people living along forest fringe areas who want that concrete steps be taken to save their lives and property.

"Elephant attacks have increased. We lost 14 lives this year. The forest department should introduce scientific measures to stop wild animals from entering human habitats," said Kerala Independent Farmers' Association chairman Alex Ozhukayil.

Dr PS Easa, an expert in elephant conservation, says the usage ‘wild elephant attack’ is wrong.  “Most of such incidents are accidents and occur at nights or early in the morning. Elephants enter human settlements in search of food and water and are lured by paddy, banana, pineapple and jackfruit cultivation in forest fringes. We cannot deny wild animals their rights. We should learn to co-exist,” said Easa. 

Farmers erect electric fences, use spikes, beat drums, burst crackers and chase and even throw fireballs to drive away elephant herds. Though they work, the tactics might present a distressing sight as was seen on September 20. 

A herd of 16 wild elephants, including calves, that had entered the IIT-Palakkad were almost tortured by a hostile crowd. The panicked jumbos were seen running helter-skelter. The adult elephants finally huddled together to protect the calves. The jumbos had entered the campus from Walayar forest through a breach in solar fencing and panicked when they could not find a way to return to the wild. 

Path of  The jumbos

The state has eight elephant corridors but movement of wild jumbos has been interrupted by settlements and plantations. The increased human activity along the corridors leads to human-elephant conflicts. The corridors and their lengths are:

Tirunelli-Kudrakote (6 km)

The corridor, passing through Wayanad North forest division, connects Brahmagiri hills in Karnataka with the Coorg plateau. The 6-km-long corridor in the Tirunelli reserve forest is 1 to 1.5-km-wide and is important to maintain habitat contiguity.

The Mananthavady-Tirunelli temple road cuts across the corridor and interrupts the movement of elephants. There were five villages along the corridor of which four were relocated by the Wildlife Trust of India with the help of the forest department in 2015. Nearly 25.4 acres of land was purchased from 37 families to restore the corridor.

Kottiyur-Periya (3 km)

The corridor extends from Periya in Wayanad North division to Kottiyur in Kannur forest division and facilitates the movement of elephants to Brahmagiri hills. The Boys Town village, plantations and the Palchuram-Mananthavadi road obstructs the corridor, which is 3-km-long, but only 0.15-km-wide. Solar fencing erected by plantations and forest department hinder the jumbos’ movement.

Periya-Pakranthalam (0.5 km)

This connects north and south Periya forests. Elephants from Wayanad North forest division move to the Kozhikode forest division through this 0.5-km-long and 0.3-km-wide corridor. The Mananthavady-Kuttiadi Ghat road cuts through the corridor forcing elephants to pass through the farmlands, leading to destruction of crops and causing conflict with humans.

Nilambur-Appankapu (0.4 km)

The corridor connects Nilambur and Vazhikadavu ranges of Nilambur North forest division and is used by elephants to move from Wayanad South division to Gudalur forests in Tamil Nadu. The length and width of the corridor is 0.4. Rubber plantations at Appankappu and a settlement colony with 132 households obstruct it.

Nilambur Kovilakom- New Amarambalam (1 km)

It connects the Nilambur Kovilakom and New Amarambalam reserve forests. Jumbos use the 1-km-long and 0.4-km wide corridor to reach Nilgiri biosphere, Silent Valley and Mukurthi national park. The Gudalur-Nilambur road passes through it and elephants are unable to cross the road due to its steep slope.

Nilambur-Mudumalai (35 km)

Located on the Tamil Nadu-Kerala border, the corridor connects Nilgiri North forest division with Gudalur and Mudumalai.

Elephants move from Nilambur to Mudumalai and Bandipur through the 35-km-long corridor. However, it is narrow, just 0.1-km-wide, and there are 26 settlements, tea, coffee, clove and cardamon estates along the corridor. The NH67, connecting Ooty and Bengaluru, passes through it.

Vazhachal-Anamalai (13 km)

Passing through Sholayar and connecting Valparai in Anamalai tiger reserve with Malayattoor forests in Kerala, the corridor is used by jumbos from Malayattoor and Vazhachal divisions to go to Anamalai forest. The corridor, which is 13km long and 1.5km wide, has several villages and tea and coffee plantations along the way.

Vazhachal-Anamalai via Ryan (6 km)

The corridor connects Valparai with the Malayattoor forest division. Elephants from Malayattoor and Vazhachal forests move to Anamalai through the Ryan division belonging to the Tamil Nadu Tea Plantation Corporation. It is 6 km long and 1 km wide.

Palakkad-Kovai railway line: Corridor of death for jumbos

The railway line connecting Palakkad with Coimbatore and passing through Walayar forest is a corridor of death for the jumbos, with 16 elephants dying on the stretch after getting hit by trains between 2002 and 2020.

Most accidents occured on the B line which passes through Kanjikode, Walayar, Ettimadai and Madukkarai. The embankments on either side of the tracks are steep and the elephants get trapped on the tracks. Six elephants died within 20 days in 2016 after getting hit by trains between Kanjkode and Ettimadai.

Though a few elephants that suffered injuries in such accidents also died later, they were not included in the official toll. Elephant lovers claim around 30 elephants have died during the period. The Southern Railway recently told the National Green Tribunal that it had restricted the speed of trains on the Kanjikode-Madukkarai section to 45kmph from 6pm to 6am.

It said signages had been put up to warn drivers and solar fencing was done on 7.1km along the B line and 3.2km along A line. Ramps were also erected at some locations to allow elephants to pass without getting trapped.

Jumbo deaths: Besides being hit by trains, elephants have died in the state  after coming into contact with traps laid by humans to drive wild animals away. In 2020, a 10-ft-tall tusker was electrocuted in Kanjikode. Besides, the death of a pregnant wild elephant after eating a fruit that was stuffed with a cracker in 2020 at Velliyar had gained national attention.

Crop raid for first time in 40 years

For the first time in 40 years, the Malayangad and Poovathamkandiyil areas in the Vanimel panchayat of Kozhikode district have been victimised by repeated crop raids by elephants. "A herd of wild elephants raided our crops five times last month, destroying rubber, coconut and arecanut trees," said Ranjith Elukkunnel, a teacher. The high-range area is close to Kannavam reserve forest in Kannur district.

Jumbos move freely in Munnar

Herds of wild elephants have been seen roaming around Munnar, Chinnakkanal, Pooppara and Nedumkandam and causing loss of life and property. Besides Viji, who was killed on September 23, a 45-year-old woman in Thakkulam near Pooppara was killed by a wild jumbo while she was working in a plantation on July 21.

A herd also destroyed four houses at Shoolapparakkudy settlement in August. Wild elephants even blocked traffic on Adimali-Munnar route at Valara on September 27.

The forest department has proposed to restore the elephant corridor passing through Anayirangal in Devikulam range of Munnar forest to connect Chinnar and Marayur forests with the Periyar tiger reserve. The Idukki district collector recently said encroachments at Anayirangal will be evicted.

Most of the families in the 301 colony near Anayirankal had to leave due to frequent elephant raids. Title deeds were distributed in 2002 following a protest by tribal community across the state for land rights.

"The Wildlife Trust of India has set an example by relocating people in four villages and restoring the Tirunelli-Kudrakote corridor. The Kerala Forest department should initiate steps to relocate settlements in other corridors too," said Sajan Jahas, former project manager, Wildlife Trust of India.



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