The Karnataka Forest Department (KFD) has decided that the best way to curb man-elephant conflict in the Rajiv Gandhi (Nagarahole) Tiger Reserve area is to clear out 10,000 acres of teakwood trees and replace them with fruit-bearing ones.
What’s more, the decision has even garnered nods from elected representatives of the Kodagu and Mysuru regions.
With increasing incidents of conflict between humans and elephants and destruction of crops in the Kodagu and Mysuru circles, the KFD, under the chairmanship of forest minister B Ramanatha Rai, had convened a meeting of MLAs, MLCs and department officials of the regions at the Vidhana Soudha on Tuesday.
The representatives suggested that along with existing practises of building elephant-proof trench, solar fencing and railway track fencing, more and more fruit trees could be planted within the limits of Nagarahole Tiger Reserve.
Confirming the decision, Rai told BM that they have decided to clear out the teak plantation and replace it with fruit trees. “Several leaders who took part in the meeting said teakwood trees do not allow any other vegetation to grow beneath it. This creates a scarcity of fodder within the forest, which forces them to maraud into fields and estates, destroying standing crop,” he said, adding that if there was enough fodder well within the forest limits, there are hardly any chances of them coming out in search of food.
However, the task of removing teakwood trees spread across more than 10,000 acres would be no cakewalk. The state would have to obtain clearances from the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF), and National Tiger Conservatory Authority (NTCA) as Nagarahole is declared a national park and a tiger reserve.
Acknowledging the hurdles, Rai said: “We know that we need to take permission from the Centre. We will definitely take permission by sending in a special request.
With the local representatives mooting the idea and department too considering it feasible, we will write to the centre seeking permission to clear the trees.”
Pressure from timber mafia?
The government’s decision to clear out teak trees has left green crusaders and wildlife activists red-faced. Several activists expressed concern that the government may have approved the stand by succumbing to the pressure of the timber lobby that is thriving in the Kodagu district.
“Of late, with the increased area under protected forests in Kodagu, and the constant vigilance by the KFD officials, the timber mafia had lost ground, and was now operating from Kerala. But with the government deciding to clear teak plantation on such a large scale, it would only brighten the prospects of the timber mafia. Also, fruit trees do not come up overnight and require several years to grow. Until then what would elephants do?” asked a conservationist who works in the Kodagu area.
Karnataka’s forests are home to more than 6,000 elephants — the highest population of Asiatic elephants in any state. The Kodagu and Mysuru circles of the forest department have the highest number of elephants, and Kodagu has been the central place for repeated incidents of man-elephant conflict.
In fact, the department’s operation to catch marauding elephants is on in Kodagu and already two elephants have been captured. In fact, the Chhattisgarh government had submitted a request to the Karnataka to provide them with as many elephants as they could, according to the forest minister.
While the elected representatives of Kodagu mooted it and the government too had accepted the proposal, which will soon be forwarded to the centre for clearance, officials of the KFD believe it could be a lengthy procedure.
“In general, all tiger reserves present a plan of action 15-20 years in advance, and clearing out teak wood trees figures nowhere in the proposal. It has to be mooted separately and would require special permission. Both the state and central wildlife boards have to clear the project and only then the MoEF will give its assent,” a senior officer from the Kodagu circle told BM, requesting anonymity.
On this, the minister said, “We will include the project under annual working plan and make funds available under various schemes, including NREGA (National Rural Employment Guarantee Act).”
Top officials in KFD confirmed that more than 15 per cent of the 643.39 sq km of Nagarahole Tiger Reserve was teak wood plantation. As teak doesn’t decay fast naturally under forest conditions, the department has been facing lot of problems pertaining to clearing of fallen teak wood . “In fact, many tourists wonder if the Nagarahole Tiger Reserve is actually a teak wood plantation. Such is the extent of the teak wood plantation. Since 1965, under various plans, teak wood trees have been planted across park with an average of 1,000 to 2,000 trees annually added to the plantation. Currently, we have trees that are more than 60 years old,” said a top official of the Kodagu circle. As per recent census, Nagarahole has the second highest population of big cats in the country.