Corridor for elephants: Search for sustainable solution to human-elephant conflict (India)


Anand Kumar, The Economic Times

Date Published

“Kanneer Anjali” scream posters and banners in the picturesque little
town of Madukkarai in Coimbatore district in western Tamil Nadu.
Loosely translated from Tamil, this means “a tearful farewell”.

“Kattaiyan aka Madukkarai Maharaj, we thought you would leave our
woods, but we did not think you would leave this earth. We will always
live with your memory.”

This message is by the residents of Madukkarai, who are mourning a
20-year-old wild bull elephant that died following its capture by the
Tamil Nadu Forest Department officials on June 19.

The elephant had strayed into Madukkarai about eight months ago, in
search of food, damaging crops and destroying homes in its hunger, and
killing a Forest Department official who had tried to drive it back
into the forests.

The local people had named the elephant Kattaiyan (one who is like a
log; the burly one). The Forest Department officials nicknamed the
elephant Encounter and ordered its capture and translocation to the
Anamalai Reserve in early June.

A week-long chase followed — around 20 personnel from the Forest
Department, the police and other government officials along with four
kumki (temple) elephants tracked and finally captured a sedated
Kattaiyan, in an operation titled Mission Madukkarai Maharaj.

A day after its capture, Kattaiyan was found dead in its kraal in
Anamalai. Postmortem reports leaked to the press showed the cause of
death as a broken skull, alleging that the young elephant had
frantically beaten its head against the wooden poles of the kraal in a
bid to escape.

Activists alleged that Kattaiyan died from an overdose of anaesthesia.
Residents of Madukkarai, who had burst firecrackers and hurled stones
to scare away the hungry elephant from their fields and homes, are now
in tears.

“If we had known the Forest Department would kill the elephant, we
would never have made any demand for capturing it,” rues Saravana
Kumar, a resident of Madukkarai. “We thought the Forest Department
would take it away and let it loose in some other area but their
intention was to capture it and tame it into a kumki.

Even if they had let it loose in the forest, it would have survived,”
laments Kumar. Forest Department officials have refused to comment on
the botched operation that took the life of the wild elephant. But
wildlife activists are livid at, what they allege are, unscientific
methods being employed to resolve the recurring human-elephant
conflict in the 10 districts of Tamil Nadu that line the Western

A tale of two court cases

Two important cases relating to humanelephant conflict in the southern
state are being heard in courts, the outcome of which would show the
way for the Tamil Nadu government’s environmental policy.

The first is the almost decade-old Sigur Elephant Corridor case, filed
in 2008 as a public interest litigation (PIL) by petitioner and
activist ‘Elephant’ G Rajendran.

The case pertains to around 4,225 acres of forest land in the
Nilgiris, which has been developed, allegedly, with blatant disregard
to the movement of wildlife. Residential buildings, industries,
resorts and educational institutions had mushroomed in the Sigur
Plateau area in the Western Ghats.

The PIL was filed after wild elephants entered these allegedly illegal
encroachments, leading to conflict between humans and wild beasts. The
PIL stated that humans had encroached into an elephant corridor, a
natural path that wild elephants take through the forests, in search
of food and water.

The state and Central governments responded by setting up committees
to examine the merits of the PIL’s argument for the retrieval of
forest land and agreed that the area was indeed an active elephant

The Chennai High Court, in 2011, ruled that the state could take over
the area earmarked as the elephant corridor and go ahead with the
demolition of all the buildings there. Land owners then appealed in
September 2011 and a stay was issued by the Supreme Court, which
continues till date. “If these 4,225 acres are retrieved, it should
solve the issue of human-elephant conflict to a large extent,” said

“As far as protecting wildlife goes, the Forest Department officials
are behaving like frogs in a well. They have not embraced the use of
technology in protecting wildlife,” he adds. Landowners who appealed
in the apex court could not be reached for comment. The second case
pertains to the spiritual group Isha Foundation’s Coimbatore premises.

The Tamil Nadu government had, in 2013, dragged the Isha Foundation to
court over alleged violations in construction of buildings without
getting requisite clearances. The state government argued that the
buildings in question were on forest land, meant for elephant

The Isha Foundation denied all charges in court. The case is being
heard in the Chennai High Court. (The Isha Foundation did not respond
to calls and an email on the case.)

Whose corridor is it?

The outcome of both these cases would determine which way policy would
swing in Tamil Nadu as far as the protection of dedicated elephant
corridors is concerned. “Why are these cases pending for so many years
in courts?” asks Mohan Raj, an environmental activist.

“The Forest Department has not pushed either of these cases or the
land acquisition of elephant corridor in a satisfactory manner.
Acquiring this land is the way to secure the future of our elephants,”
he says.

Activists say that no resolution to the human-elephant conflict can be
found unless illegal encroachments of forest land are dealt with in a
strict manner. “In Coimbatore forest region itself, there are around
50 industries,” alleges Kovai Sadasivam, an environmental activist
based in Coimbatore. “This is the main cause for the shrinking of
forest land.

The human-elephant conflict is largely a result of the cronyism
between the Forest Department officials and industrialists. They have
tweaked the laws and ensured that even the basic norms are flouted,
allowing so-called development to come up everywhere,” he alleges.
Wildlife experts say that humans intrude into elephant territory and
then panic at the sight of the beasts.

Environment activists say that existing laws are sufficient to ensure
the protection of wildlife but the state government has not been
stringent in implementing the law in letter or in spirit.

Get the act together

One example, oft-repeated, is that of the Hill Area Conservation
Authority (HACA). Set up in 1990, the HACA was created in an effort to
monitor and mitigate the impact of unbridled development along the
areas lining the Western Ghats, an ecologically sensitive zone.

“Often economic decisions are not guided by social costs of
infrastructure and hill ecology,” states a government order issued in
1990, setting up the HACA. “The entirely desirable goals of vegetable
cultivation, livestock breeding, dairy development, repatriate
rehabilitation, communication improvements, tourism promotion etc have
all led to overall severe deterioration in our hill environment.

This is because of the fact that the hill areas require a policy
different from that of the plains which has not been fully recognised.
The construction of an overall development philosophy for the hill
areas is a specialist task to be done by agencies specifically
committed for the task,” it said.

The mandate of the HACA was to monitor all developmental activities in
the designated hill areas and submit reports once every three years on
any possible danger to wildlife. Activists allege that not even a
single report has been submitted since the HACA’s inception.

The Tamil Nadu Forest Department did not respond to any queries
relating to this issue. Out of the 88 elephant corridors identified by
the Wildlife Trust of India’s National Elephant Corridor Project, five
designated corridors in the Nilgiri biosphere are in the districts of
Nilgiri, Coimbatore and Erode in Tamil Nadu.

These corridors are the Kallar Corridor in Coimbatore, the Sigur
Corridor in Nilgiri which is currently under litigation, the Anaikatti
Corridor in Coimbatore, the Chamrajnagar-Talamalai Interstate Corridor
spanning Erode and Sathyamangalam as well as parts of Karnataka and
the Bannari Corridor in Erode. “All the elephant corridors have roads
cutting through it and vehicular traffic, which is not allowed as per
the law,” says activist Mohan Raj.

“These elephant corridors are also used by tigers, leopards, dhole
(wild dogs), sloth bear, gaur and other wildlife,” he says. The
Nilgiri biosphere is home to the largest population of elephants in

Approximately 5,000 wild elephants and 500 tigers live in these dense
jungles, out of the country’s total wild elephant population of
25,000-28,000. Kattaiyan’s premature death has served the urgent need
of turning the spotlight on conservation.

Whether the state government swings into action swiftly and takes
measures, keeping a long-term, sustainable and scientific solution in
mind, will determine the fate of not just elephants but also the
people of the state. Madukkarai may mourn now for Kattaiyan. But
relaxing forest rules will ensure a lot of tears in the future for
many more Kattaiyans — and not just in Madukkarai.