Drought in the Western Ghats Part 7: Encroachments in elephant corridor lead to human-animal conflicts (India)



Date Published

Editor’s Note: This is the seventh piece in a multi-part series on the nature of human excesses that have imperilled the fragile ecosystem of the Western Ghats, home to at least 325 globally threatened species of flora and fauna, by United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s reckoning.

“Do not venture out of your home after sunset.”

“Avoid staying in farm houses during the night.”

“People who ride two-wheelers should come home before nightfall.”

These are some of the notices issued by the Forest Department of the Krishnagiri district. Herds of elephants from Karnataka forests have taken refuge in the villages of Krishnagiri district as well as those that dot the foothills of the Western Ghats in Tamil Nadu. People living there are unable to sleep at night due to these rampaging wild animals.

The extreme drought in the forests has made cracks in the ground. The animals, in search of water, have started migrating. The first to lead is always the elephant herds. The rest of the animals follow the elephants. Their path is obstructed by human-made obstacles which results in them entering the villages and damaging properties.

Representational image. Reuters

“We are unable to go out after 6 pm. The elephants have camped very close to the village. Once it becomes dark, these elephants come into the village in search of water. We are unable to go out of the house after dark for our ablutions. We are taking our lives in our hands by living here. The children are very frightened when they hear movements and noises,” said N Nagarajan who lives in a village called Sanamavu in Krishnagiri district.

His plight is echoed by those living in the districts of Krishnagiri, Dharmapuri, Erode, Coimbatore, Nilgiris, Dindigul, Tirunelveli and Kanyakumari which are situated near the Ghats.

“Elephants have, since eons, trodden a path in search of water and food. This is known as their Migratory Path. These paths are recorded in their genes and passed on to their progeny. Whenever there is a shortage of water, they know where they can find water from this innate knowledge. With their natural GPS they know where they can find food and water, and travel to places their ancestors have trodden many many years ago. But these paths are not what they were 50 years back. Educational institutions, ashrams and elite resorts for humans have sprouted in these forests. This confuses the elephants and so they enter the villages in search of food and water,” explained Muhammed Ali, a writer. His book ‘Azhiyum Peruyir’ (Destruction of Wild Life) details the plight of the elephants in the forests of southern India.

The destruction of the buffer zones – the area that has to be left untouched between human habitations and the forests – has probably led to maximum conflict. “Buffer zone of the forest is completely encroached by buildings. Not just buildings, mining activities and human movements inside the forest affect the nature of the wild. When elephant herds migrate from one place to another place, in search of food and water, they are disturbed by these encroachments and human activities. They are attracted by crops in agricultural fields which are very close to the forest. Elephants never mind farm land or forest land, they need food and water,” said Ali.

When the drought affects all the animals in the forest, why then are we looking only at elephants? Because elephants are the symbol of what happens in the wild. Since it is the largest wild animal, all other animals follow suit. “Elephants and the animals which follow them travel from one place to another. For example, there is no rainfall in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. But, in Kerala it is raining and so these elephants and animals go towards Kerala. From one region to the other region they have to travel a narrow path which is called as the Elephant Corridor. Krishnagiri’s Sanamavu, Kallaru near Mettupalayam, Coimbatore’s Anaikatty, Chinnaru near Udumalai have been identified as Elephant Corridors. Environmental activists insist that they be protected, but to date there is no improvement. Instead the encroachments are only increasing,” said Rajan, a conservationist based in Coimbatore.

Rajan points to the encroachments by spiritual guru Jaggi Vasudev and his Isha Yoga Centre in Coimbatore. “Isha Yoga Centre is already facing charges of encroachment. They have erected the “Adi Yogi” statue of Lord Shiva. They are also erecting a 2-metre broad wall around the statue. After the inauguration of this statue by the Prime Minister of India, this has become a tourist spot and droves of people come here every day. This will change the nature of the forests,” he added.

Legal Battle Over The Ghats

Two important cases relating to human-elephant conflict in the southern state are being heard in various courts, the outcome of which would set the trend for environmental policy of the state government.

The first is the almost decade-old Sigur Elephant Corridor case, filed way back 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. When wild elephants began entering these alleged illegal encroachments and conflict began between the humans and wild beasts, the PIL was filed, stating that humans had actually encroached into an elephant corridor, a natural path through forests that wild elephants take in search of food and water.

The state and central governments responded by setting up committees to go into the merits of the PIL’s arguments for retrieval of forest land and agreed that the area was indeed an active elephant corridor. The Madras High Court, in 2011, ruled that the state could take over the area earmarked as the elephant corridor and go ahead with demolition of all buildings there. Land owners then went on to appeal in September 2011 and a stay issued on this appeal by the Supreme Court continues to date.

“If these 4,225 acres are rescued, that should solve the issue of human-elephant conflict to a large extent,” explained Rajendran. “As far as protecting wildlife goes, Forest Department officials are behaving like frogs in the well. They have not embraced the use of science in protecting wildlife,” he added. Landowners who appealed in the apex court could not be reached for comment.

The second important case is one pertaining to Isha Foundation’s Coimbatore premises referred to earlier. The Tamil Nadu state government had, in 2013, dragged the foundation to court over alleged violations in buildings and for going ahead with construction without requisite clearances. The state government argued that the buildings in question were forest land, meant for elephant movement. Isha Foundation denied all charges against it in court. The case is currently being heard by the Madras High Court.

Though these cases are being heard in the courts and there are “lock and seal” orders, the foundation continues to build more, flouting rules and clearing more forest. Though the land where the statue has been erected and the wall being built are patta lands, building in patta lands near the forest has certain rules and regulations. Hill Conservation Authority’s rules need to be followed and their permission taken before constructing anything there. But, Isha Foundation has not followed these requirements.

Recently, an organisation called Pooulagin Nanbargal (Friends of the Earth) filed another suit against Isha before the National Green Tribunal.

The outcome of both of these pending cases would determine which way policy would swing in Tamil Nadu as far as the protection of dedicated elephant corridors are concerned. “Why are these cases pending for so many years in courts?” asked Mohan Raj, an environmental activist. “Forest Department has not pushed any of these cases or elephant corridor land acquisition in a satisfactory manner. Acquiring patta and revenue department lands used by elephants is the solution we seek for securing the long-term future for our elephants,” he stated.

In the Tamil Nadu forest region alone, in the last 10 months, around 40 elephants have died though no data is available for the other animals which have perished during the same period. The Forest Department has no answers to give either.

Part 1:Urbanisation demands see hills sacrificed to whims of mining, industry lobbies
Part 2:How deforestation saved ecologically-sensitive hills in Kerala
Part 3: Ambulance service supplies water to 700 families in Kerala’s Kottayam
Part 4: In Kerala’s Wayanad, acute water scarcity leading to man-animal conflict
Part 5: Cauvery suffers a slow death as tourism and urbanisation flourish
Part 6:Tamil Nadu’s over-dependence on ground water has left it parched