CHENNAI: Electric fences are wreaking havoc in the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, killing four tuskers in the last six months. Erected illegally on private estates, agricultural farms and resorts, these fences are being seen as the biggest threat to elephants in the Reserve that is home to almost 25% of the total Asian elephant population in the country. According to available records, electric fences kill more tuskers than poachers in Tamil Nadu.
The first elephant electrocution in the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve in the last six months was reported at a private resort in Bokkapuram in September 2014. The second tusker came in contact with an electric fence on an agricultural farm at Chokkanalli on January 4 this year and the third died on a garlic farm in Sholur on January 29. The last death was reported from Gudalur, again on an agricultural farm, on Friday.
All these fences had been drawing electricity illegally from connections meant for houses or sheds and in most cases, the officials concerned were aware they had been erected without permission. Owners of these estates have not been booked for the deaths. Equally responsible for the fences coming up are foresters, guards and watchers who patrol the forests, say naturalists.
In January 2012, in response to a petition, Madras high court directed the secretary of the state environment and forests department to remove illegally erected fences, solar and electric, in the elephant corridor in Nilgiris. Subsequently, an appeal was preferred against this order in Supreme Court which dismissed it. Despite the high court order, farm owners and others continue to put up fences in the elephant corridor, say conservationists.
In 2011, the Union ministry of environment and forests appointed a task force which said the geographic range of elephants in the country had dwindled by 70% since the 1960s. Statistics showed that 318 elephants were electrocuted between 2003 and 2012 in the country.
Wildlife authorities said a case of an elephant being killed by an electric fence is always treated as a case of poaching. As the animal is categorized under Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act, the offender is imprisoned for a minimum of three years. In most cases, however, the owner of the resort, farm or estate who erected the fence goes scot free and only the caretaker is punished. Those punished get bail and come out of prison in a short time, admitted a forest officer who said this was a serious issue that had to be addressed by the authorities conceded.
Saying that the forest department had to take criminal action in such cases, officials of the electricity department said they could only book cases on charges of electricity theft and unauthorised tapping of power. Whenever such incidents were brought to their notice, the power supply was immediately disconnected, said a senior electricity board officer.
Conservationists say the increasing cases of electrocution of elephants will have a negative bearing on the male-female elephant ratio in the wild and want to authorities to maintain a strict vigil to check the erection of illegal electric fences in elephant corridors.