Drought in Nilgiris spells doom for jumbos (India)


The Hindu - Rohan Premkumar

Date Published

See link for photos. 

The death of four wild elephants in the lower Nilgiris last month with symptoms of starvation caused by a lack of green fodder due to insufficient rainfall has brought into focus the effect of drought on wildlife in the region.

Forest veterinarians, who performed autopsies, said the elephants were extremely weak. One of them was a less than six-month-old calf and the oldest was more than 50 years old.

However, Srinivas R Reddy, Field Director, Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, where the two elephants died, said while lack of rainfall was a matter of concern, shortage of green fodder was an annual feature.

“There has been a 60% deficit in rainfall this year, which has led to less water being present in some of water bodies within the reserve. There is no cause for great alarm as there is green fodder in Nilakottai and Kargudi,” he said.

But Mr. Reddy added that such hard times were essential for elephant population as this would spur them on to migrate to other forests, allowing for the rejuvenation of the vegetation in their home ranges.

“Usually, elephants from Bandipur make their way into MTR, while Mudumalai and Masinagudi elephants move to Bhavani Sagar in search of food. Weaker animals get culled off by the process of natural selection, and the healthy animals survive. This is also the time when elephants give birth and all the herds we are monitoring have young calves, so there is no cause for great concern, as every year at least 10-12 elephants die during the dry season,” he added.

Prosopis threat

Though the Forest Department is confident that the animals have the capability to survive testing times, human impact on pristine forests could be accentuating the effects of drought. In the Thengumarada section in the Nilgiris North Division, which is considered to be the buffer area of the MTR, Prosopis plants, introduced many decades ago as a source of firewood, has taken over 40% of the more than 11,500 hectare range.

The vegetation is extremely difficult to eradicate as they can regenerate even when their barks are chopped off or after they are set on fire. The trees are also clustered around the Moyar river, where animals congregate to drink water. An autopsy performed on an elephant in Thengumarada recently revealed that it had eaten a lot of the Prosopis pods.

The lack of rainfall this year has led to many patches of forest containing conventional fodder for elephants in Thengumarada drying out. However, the Prosopis trees still have green leaves and stand strong, making them only viable option for nutrition for elephants.

Dr. B Ramakrishnan, Assistant Professor in Wildlife Biology at the Government Arts College in Udhagamandalam, who has been studying elephants and nutritional intakes, said Prosopis is rich in fibre, and elephants turn to them when they have no other vegetation to consume.

“When there is more fibre content, the animal requires more water to easily digest the food. In times of drought, indigestion can lead to impaction, and the animal will become weak and stop eating food, resulting in worms in the stomach and intestinal tract increasing, and sometimes even death,” explained Mr. Ramakrishnan.

Another veterinarian in the Animal Husbandry Department said elephants have a varied daily diet of leaves, grasses, bark and fruit.

“But when there is a lack of some of these components to their diet, they turn to what is available, and during the dry season, they consume large quantities of Prosopis, and this can sometimes turn deadly,” he said.

S Kalanidhi, District Forest Officer (Nilgiris North Division), said the vegetation has deep roots that consume a lot of groundwater, leading to their depletion. “We have been removing these trees from the Thengumarada section for the last four to five years. We even remove the roots from the ground to stop their regeneration,” said Mr. Kalanidhi.

A further two months without rain could be catastrophic for the elephant population, said Jean-Pierre Puyravaud, conservationist, Sigur Nature Trust.

Females, calves exposed

Mr. Puyravaud said drought was particularly affecting female elephants and calves. Lack of water could be put down to “mismanagement” of the area’s water resources.

There was a lack of inflow of water into the Moyar, due to power generation further upstream, and this was not allowing groundwater levels to replenish themselves. Even when water from the dams storing water to the perennial Moyar was released, it takes many days for it to reach the plateau due to illegal water diversion taking place further upstream, he added.

With the increase in the population in the area, adoption of water-intensive agricultural practices and continued expansion of the resort industry, the pressure placed on water resources has expanded exponentially.