Ringed by coffee bushes, orchards, pepper vines and wild woods, Thithimathi is a scenic town in Kodagu district. However, the serenity is only seeming.
A long walk away from the town’s bus stop is Devamachi, a village of less than 25 families. It is surrounded by coffee plantations with spiked gates and solar-powered fences. The once great forest has been reduced to patches of wild green interspersed between the plantations. A deep trench separates the woods from the path we take.
Inside one of the plantations stands a wild elephant browsing on the bushes. It radiates belligerence, brushing against a tree trunk, and trumpeting repeatedly, a ‘do not disturb’ signal.
The village farmers are not happy about this visitor and want him gone. But for the elephant, this stretch falls under his traditional migration corridor and it is his territory. And now he wants it back. “They should be culled,” says a farmer, his voice tinged with resentment.
This is the classical human-elephant conflict (HEC), a phenomenon in which both sides suffer huge losses, but there can only be one winner – man.
grand theatre of man-elephant conflict: p6Back in June, a man was trampled to death by an elephant in the middle of Thithimathi town. A few days later, two elephants were shot dead by unidentified people. They were retaliatory killings.
A further 150 km from Thithimathi is the plantation of the Tamil Nadu Tea Plantation Corporation Limited at Kolapalli near Gudalur in Nilgiris district. Kolapalli division is home to a large number of Sri Lankan expatriates who work and live in the tea estate. This region too is a grand theatre of the human-elephant conflict.
Both Thithimathi and Gudalur fall in a 12,600-sq km area of forest and protected spaces which hold the single largest contiguous population of Asian elephants, some 7,000 individuals.
It is the most important elephant landscape in the country. It envelops the entire Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve (NBR) and straddles the three states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala. Crop raids by elephants, human lives lost to marauding pachyderms and retaliatory killings of elephants by means of gunshots, electrocution and poisoning are routine here.
According to available data, more than 100 elephants have been killed as a result of HEC in the three southern states in recent years. Twenty five deaths were reported due to electrocution in Tamil Nadu alone. As many as 300 human lives have been lost to Human Elephant Conflict (HEC). Many of the planters here keep licensed guns.
“The conflict will continue as long as there is human presence in the natural habitat of elephants. Whatever we do is inadequate,” declares Y K Kiran Kumar, forest ranger of the Mathigodu range under Thithimathi division.
Recent studies suggest that new areas are being sucked into the conflict zone, fuelled by insufficient resources in the forest, fragmentation and degradation of the habitat, increase in the local elephant population and corridor loss. The human-elephant relationship is not beyond repair, as ranger Kiran Kumar might suggest, but it has definitely reached a low. HEC now represents the primary threat to the survival of the Asian elephant, a globally endangered species.
Approximately Rs 1,500 crore has been spent over the past 10 years in three southern states to check the human-elephant conflict by building trenches, solar fencing and elephant walls, without much success. Unless effective mitigation measures are taken, the prospect of south India without elephants is a medium-term possibility, conservationists say.
The Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) was once widely distributed throughout the country, including in states like Punjab and Gujarat. Currently, it is found in only 14 states, in four fragmented populations.