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Man-animal conflict is nothing new along the borders of the Western Ghats. But when the natural path of an animal is taken over by human settlements, it poses a challenge of epic proportions. This is because a wild animal unable to find its destination can be at its most destructive.
The people living around the towns of Kalladikode and Malampuzha in Palakkad district in north Kerala discovered just that a week ago when three wild elephants roamed at will among their houses, wreaking havoc that kept families awake late into the night.
Finally, partly due to the efforts of forest officials and partly because the pachyderms themselves might have felt the need to get back to thicker vegetation, the elephants moved into the forests but not before living behind a trail of destruction.
But locals are saying that the worst is not yet over as the elephants could make a violent comeback at any time and they have reasons to believe that they will do so.
“Nobody can say that the elephants are gone for good. This has happened before also and was the forest department able to prevent a repeat? We are living in perpetual fear. It’s been nights since we even slept peacefully,’’ Ashokan, a farmer and a ward member at Marutha Road Panchayat in Palakkad told Firstpost.
Ashokan’s words are echoed not just in Palakkad but also across the forest fringe areas in Wayanad and Idukki, where the man-elephant conflict has touched dangerous proportions in the last few months.
In the last six months alone, three human lives have been lost while the same number of elephants have also died, either electrocuted by the power fences or killed by frustrated villagers.
In Palakkad, a man who was returning from work was killed by an elephant in the dark before he could even realise what he had run into. In Munnar, a tea estate worker was caught in a similar situation on 15 August but miraculously survived the attack and is recuperating at the government hospital.
22 deaths have occurred in 2016-17 with the forest department giving away 9.63 crores as compensation, the highest in almost a decade. Since 2013, the number of deaths due to elephant attacks in the state have been close to 20 every year, a clear indication that this is a pattern which is going from bad to worse.
So what makes this conflict reach alarming proportions?
Biologists and conservationists who are alarmed at the impending crisis say this was expected. At this time of the year when farmers are reaping the season’s harvest, an attack was imminent similar to drought times, when the elephants come out for food and water. But the primary cause lies somewhere else.
The all-important elephant corridors in the entire Western Ghats have been broken and disfigured over the years by human settlements and rampant encroachment leading to mindless construction. With the elephants unable to move around from one habitat to another because of man-made structures or settlements breaking their natural path, the pachyderms soon venture into uncharted territory and finally cause havoc.
“This is clearly a man made issue not just in Munnar where I have done my research but in most other places. For instance here in Munnar from 2002-03 the Kerala government brought in some 301 new adivasi familes and the settlement was made right in the middle of the elephant corridor from Anamalai to the Annayirankal Dam. With their natural paths cut off, the elephants will naturally step out and this raised the conflict,’’ says M Rameshan, scientist at Centre for Earth Science Studies (CESS) in Thiruvananthapuram.
As of 2017 only 18 out of the 301 families remain. The rest have fled from the area after rampant conflict with the elephants had killed six people in the last few years.
The situation is no different in Wayanad which falls at the confluence of two states — Tamil Nadu to its left and Karnataka to its right. For elephants, the forests in Wayanad is their natural path to migrate from Bandipore to Mudumalai and in the middle of this there are some 104 settlements with some 2600 odd tribal families as per wildlife records. The conflict that arises here cannot be overemphasised.
Though the breaking up of the corridors forms the crux of the issue, conservationists say that a number of other issues are responsible for it.
“Just look at Palakkad. It is not just the issue of corridors there. The conflict there is basically not because of the problems of that area but the fallout of what is happening in Tamil Nadu where a number of structures have come up which is pushing the elephants to this side breaking its natural path,’’ Dr PS Easa, well known conservationist and expert on Asiatic Elephants told Firstpost.
Easa goes on to say that the wildlife department’s unscientific way of putting up impediments like solar powered electric fences and other barriers without properly studying the habitat patterns of the elephants have contributed to making matters worse for the pachyderms in recent years.
“See when you break the corridor the habitat becomes two. This will certainly shrink the habitat again. After that we will go and make all types of fences and barriers making it worse for the animal. Once you put up such fences, everything is forgotten then. There is no maintenance whatsoever. You cannot solve this issue in such a manner,’’ added Easa.
Farmers at the receiving end
For the average farmer in Kerala who has been successively putting up with one drought after the other for years and still finds a way to do his cultivation, crop raid by a pack of elephants is the last thing that he wants.
Ashokan from Palakkad goes on to recollect how his paddy cultivation had been destroyed year after year by elephants. “The maximum I get out of a season from my small piece of land is around fifty thousand rupees. If that too is taken away by the elephants then where will I go? Now we are not blaming the animals alone because I don’t think there is any use in doing that. The onus is on the forest department to find a permanent solution,’’ he said.
Many others do not trust the forest officials to make any change in the tide. “These people are corrupt to the core. They are only interested in inflating the bills drawn on things they claim to be doing to make an elephant return to the forest. They have no will to find a solution for this. Every time a villager dies, they make big promises and then wait for the next attack,’’ says Rajan a farmer at Sinkukandam in Munnar.
The farmers still believe that the depletion of ground water inside the forests is one of the primary reasons for the elephants coming out in large numbers and greater frequency. Scientists also agree that there is definitely some truth in that because the rampant plantation of eucalyptus trees in the forest fringes in the last two decades has depleted the ground water.
“We are not for killing elephants though sometimes we have asked for it. What we want is that trees such as eucalyptus which drain so much of water to be replaced by others. This will surely make a difference in the habitat inside,’’ added Rajan.
But there are others who point out another crucial change in the elephants that could have brought the conflict to its present level. Nibha Namboodiri is a well known conservationist and the first qualified woman mahout in this part of the world. She says that the dietary habit of the wild elephant has gone a dramatic change in the last few years.
“The more the elephants’ habitat reduces, the more the changes to its life conditions. When they out come in search of water, they start eating new kind of food too like fruits such as jackfruit or pineapple. Once they taste it, they will naturally return to get it,’’ Nibha Namboodiri told Firstpost.
No quick-fix solutions
Conservationists say that man-animal conflict cannot be fought with hard and fast rules. But what is needed is to understand the loss of the stakeholder like the villager or a farmer and at the same time evolve better ways to understand the needs of the animals with the participation of the farmer too.
“You cannot go to a person who has lost his family or crop and say that see the real issue is the loss of the elephant corridor because high emotions are at play here. So what you need is not just an elephant-centric solution but a broader approach where the government intervenes at the local body level and treats this like any other crisis that effects the common man,’’ added Nibha.
A classic example is what an NGO named Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF) undertook at the tea gardens in Valparai at the Anamalai hills in 2006 where two scientists M Ananda Kumar and Ganesh Raghunathan used mobile technology to warn people about the movement of elephants in their settlements. Their Early Warning Systems (EWS) and GSM based red light indicator towers taught the population and the wild elephants to co-exist peacefully in a few years time.
But conservationists reiterate that there is only one long term solution that will work in ending this stalemate which is to have the elephant corridors cleared on a war footing and have them prepared in terms of growing new vegetation for the elephants to feel at home.
“The government is very well aware of the situation. There is also a proposal to relocate the tribal settlements out of the elephant corridor. But that requires a lot more funds which need to be given as compensation. It’s a long term plan that we need to implement well,’’ K Raju, Kerala’s forest minister told Firstpost.
The minister’s words reflect the unpleasant truth that any such resettlement of tribals to ease out the elephant corridor is very unlikely to happen in the recent future.
But scientists say that unless we realise that there is no fool-proof solution to this issue and instead start co-existing with the animal, we cannot solve this issue.
“When the media says that an elephant attack has taken place at some locality, they should also realise that the elephant is not making a pre-planned attack like some goons or terrorists. It’s a natural way of behaviour from an animal which feels threatened when it sees something in its way. It is an accident not an attack,’’ reiterates Easa.
From the looks of it, this man-elephant conflict is very unlikely to die down anytime soon.