Pilgrims’ litter puts Jumbos on plastic diet (India)


by P Oppilli, Times of India

Date Published
Researchers examining elephant dung in the Nilgiris have found plastic, tetra packs and small cups made of thermocol in the poop, leading to concerns about enforcement of rules for visitors to forest areas.
Founder of vulture conservation group Arulagam S Bharathidasan said his team had found non-biodegradable plastic waste in elephant dung in five places in Mudumalai Tiger Reserve (MTR) in the Nilgiris. “We found portions of chips packets, tetra packs, cups and small bowls made of thermocol in the elephant dung in MTR,” he said.
He said pilgrims visiting temples inside the core forest areas are the ones who dump plastic waste. During temple festivals shops spring up on the edge of forests and sell items in plastic bags. Snacks as well as offering to the deities are bagged in plastic, which the pilgrims toss in the protected forest area after use. Similarly, small bowls made of thermocol are used to distribute food at the temples.
Animals such as elephants and deer get attracted to the scent of salt, sweet or fruit left in the covers, bowls or tetrapacks and swallow the waste and die.
The team found plastic in elephant dung at Bannari temple in Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve, Thorappalli, Nilakkottai, Bennei, Masinagudi, Sigur and Singara areas in the Nilgiris.
More than 100 temples are located in core areas in sanctuaries and national parks in the state, said conservationists. Elephant dung, a fibrous material, plays an important role in the forest ecosystem—it attracts butterflies and is food for dung beetles. Seeds also germinate in the fertile dung.
Former World Wide Fund for Nature, India, researcher N Mohan Raj, who has worked in MTR, said he had seen tourists throwing plastic bags full of fruit to the wild elephants. “This will have adverse effects on the animals’ health,” he said.
Senior wildlife veterinarian N Kalaivanan said he had found plastic waste in elephant dung. A few years ago, an elephant was found dead in Gudalur and the postmortem revealed a large quantity of plastic materials in its stomach, which caused the death. In Kerala, another elephant was found dead in Periyar Tiger Reserve. Veterinarians removed 40kg of plastic materials from the animal’s stomach during the postmortem.
The accumulation of plastic in the digestive system of elephants can cause death in one of two ways. Plastic and its chemical components create irritation in the bowel, causing diarrhoea and dehydration and ultimately death. Abnormal accumulation of plastics in the gastrointestinal tract of animals leads to obstruction in the intestines. “This would also cause death,” said Kalaivanan.
The solution lies in strict implementation of the ban on carrying plastic materials into forest areas. As done in Kerala, plastic materials should be confiscated at the checkposts. In most sanctuaries in Kerala, officials thoroughly check every visitor for plastic materials.
Conservationists also said temporary shops should not be allowed to sell plastic materials inside the core areas. A few decades ago, temples used to distribute food in bowls made of dried banana or betel leaves, which are biodegradable. Reintroducing this system in temples, particularly those located inside core zones, would help in reducing the release of non-bio degradable waste in the forest areas, said Bharathidasan.