Who is encroaching whose land? A look at the human-elephant conflict in Tamil Nadu (India)


Divya Karthikeyan|, The News Minute

Date Published

For the last 30 years, human activity has caused elephants living in the forests of northern Tamil Nadu and Kerala to clash with humans, causing misery to both species.

Farmers in Tamil Nadu’s Krishnagiri district are tired of beating their drums, blasting old Tamil tunes from rusty loudspeakers at deafening decibel levels and buying a new round of firecrackers for the night.

While these are usually signs of celebration, for these villagers, they are means of safeguarding life and property.

From December to April, elephants migrate from forests in Hosur towards Krishnagiri and from Munnar to the Nilgiris.

These are two of the 20 elephant migration corridors in south India. Most of these are around a kilometre long or less.

Elephants are animals which require large tracts of forest land both for food and for a home, and they migrate in a manner that gives each area time rejuvenate.

According to Project Elephant, 3% of India’s land surface is elephant country and of this, only 10% is affected by conflict. In Tamil Nadu, these conflict areas fall under four districts – Vellore, Krishnagiri, Erode and Nilgiris.

Last December, 42 elephants from the Thenikakattu forests bordering Hosur entered villages abutting Sanamavu forests in Krishnagiri district, damaging the standing crops in their path.

“They stomp on our crops, they almost enter our houses,” says Kabilan, a farmer in Sanamavu village. All they can do is create loud noises to keep the jumbos away.

“We have an Elephant Proof Test, fences, but what else can we afford? Making noise and crackers are the only way we have been doing it for so long,” says Saravanan, a Superintendent of Forests Division at Dindigul.

 If the situation is grave, it’s time to bring out the Kumki, a tamed elephant that helps ward off the herd ahead of harvest season.

However, a professor of electronic engineering at Coimbatore Institute of Technology SJ Sugumaran, who studies warning systems to keep elephants away, disagrees.

“Goading on these elephants with firecrackers, especially at night, only makes it worse. And when they see a light or hear noises, the risk of being killed is very high,” he says.

One option to avoid this, is to use electric fences. The high voltage power carried along steel wires isn’t lethal, but unpleasantly jolts an elephant, warning it to stay away from the farm.

elephants have learnt their tricks to get through fences – toppling trees onto them, using their tusks to rip them out or step on the wires, and even running into them bringing posts and wires down.

There are two aspects to it, says Sugumaran, “There’s the destruction of a farmer’s sustenance, and there are the consequences of the elephant’s wrath that we have to bear. Both aren’t good outcomes. There are moats and sensors we can invest in, but we need financial support from the government.”

Shunting them back to forests using fences, trenches, or walls isn’t effective enough as the elephants will in all likelihood eat through the forests and worsen the situation. Enriching the habitat hasn’t helped either.

“It’s all there in the Forests Conservation Act in 1980, that you cannot build roads or houses or have farmlands in elephant corridors. But who respects that? We are working to develop a long term strategy, but till then, this is all we can do,” Saravanan says. “Land has been constantly diverted, elephants cannot eat through the forests, nor can they eat the crops.”

Finding a solution that ensures the flourishing of both species requires some imagination and a willingness to accept and invest in a long-term, hopefully permanent situation.