The inter-linked sanctuaries and reserves of the Western Ghats from Mysore to the Nilgiris and beyond, host to the largest single elephant population in Asia, is seething with trouble spots… R. KRISHNA KUMAR in Mysore and V.S. PALANIAPPAN in Coimbatore
PHOTO: M.A. SRIRAM
Electrocuted? An elephant carcass being pulled out of a canal near Mysore.
The notion of “mutual co-existence” governing wildlife conservation has taken a knocking with the rise in the grisly death of elephants and leopards in the one-sided man-animal conflict around Bandipur-Nagarahole-Brahmagiri-BRT Wildlife S
anctuary close to Mysore.
“Aane kaata” (“elephant menace”) has become an election issue in the rural hinterland surrounding Bandipur and the phrase encapsulates the growing intolerance of society towards animals driven out of their habitats which are systematically encroached, fragmented and degraded by the expanding human landscape.
Last November saw nine elephant deaths in a week near Nanjangud, 24 km from Mysore, out of which four died due to suspected poisoning and the remaining died of electrocution. “The total number of elephant deaths around Protected Areas in the Western Ghats landscape of Karnataka is around 31 for the period January 2008 to March 2009”, says wildlife biologist Sanjay Gubbi but the number could be more.
Scores of elephants have been electrocuted around Yellandur, Gundlupet, Hunsur, Kollegal, Begur, Chamarajanagar, Nanjangud in the last couple of years but there has not been a single conviction to act as a deterrent against illegal tapping of power from high tension cables that crisscross the national park.
“Elephant conflict is acute in the eastern, northern and western boundaries of Nagarahole, Bandipur and BRT reserves respectively. Other flashpoints include northern Kodagu and Hassan districts where the populations are isolated due to excessive habitat fragmentation by developmental projects and agriculture expansion”, Gubbi adds.
The elephant empire
A GIS database for conservation of elephant reserves prepared by the Asian Elephant Research and Conservation Centre, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, identified the Nilgiris-Eastern Ghats reserves spread across Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu encompassing more than 12,500 sq km as “Asia’s mammoth elephant empire”. The forest divisions comprising Brahmagiri, Virajpet, Madikere, Bandipur, Nugu, Cauvery, Wynad, Mudumalai, Gudalur, Nilgiri north and south, Satyamangalam, Erode, Hospur etc harboured nearly 10,500 elephants, the largest single elephant population in Asia, according to the report.
By virtue of its location close to Western Ghats, Coimbatore too is often prone to man-animal conflicts. Habitats that run dry for fodder and water during summer season, obstructions in the migratory corridor owing to constructions that came in violation of the Hill Area Conservation Authority (HACA) often result in pachyderms straying into human habitations, especially during the migratory season. The forest officials also blame the cropping pattern along the fringe areas of the forest as a reason for luring pachyderms. The cropping pattern along the reserve forest boundaries are primarily quick cash crops such as maize, banana and sugarcane.
The problem also persists in Anaimalai Tiger Reserve in Pollachi/Valparai areas where there are straying of pachyderms besides tigers, panthers and leopards. In Coimbatore Division alone, the forest area is 69.347 hectares and 350 km of forest boundaries are man-animal conflict prone. Of this 240 km are identified to be sensitive. This forest area has an average elephant population of 240 to 250, going by the recent census enumeration. Of the 240 km of sensitive forest boundary, solar electric fencing has already been installed along a 90 km stretch and proposals have been made for covering the remaining distance as well. Of late, since the tuskers have hit up on an ingenious way of handling the electric fencing by damaging them with wooden logs, the electric fence is being backed by elephant proof trenches. Proposals are underway for digging up elephant proof trenches along the entire conflict prone boundaries, Mr. I. Anwardeen, District Forest Officer said.
The Farmers Association has been regularly complaining about crop raids and damage to crops caused by elephants besides peacocks and wild boars. In fact, the farmers have sought an amendment to the Wild Life Protection Act of 1972 for controlling the population of wild boar by hunting them down since their population is growing by leaps and bounds.
There are other threats to the “elephant empire” The fate of this reserve hangs in balance as there is growing demand for a new railway line linking Chamarajanagar in Karnataka with Mettupalayam in Tamil Nadu which will devastate the habitat. The proposed India-based Neutrino Observatory at Singara in the Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary is another project that will spell doom to wildlife in the region.
Satellite imageries reveal that in the year 2004, over 14 per cent of Nagarahole and 17 per cent of Bandipur were burnt out by man-made forest fires, says Sanjay Gubbi. Frequent forest fires result in the proliferation of weeds like lantana and eupatorium that are inedible and force the herbivores to stray from the habitat and enter human landscape. Farmers around Bandipur and Nugu have witnessed some of the largest herds with excess of 100 elephants in recent years that lends credence to the decline in fodder inside the forests.
Exhaustive linear fragmentation in elephant habitats through construction of forest roads, power transmission lines, unbridled proliferation of private resorts on the fringes of Bandipur and Nagarahole, the highway to Ooty and Wayanad that cuts across Bandipur have increased anthropogenic pressure on wildlife.
Dr. Raju, Deputy Conservator of Forests, Project Tiger Division, Bandipur, points out that there are nearly 157 villages around Bandipur-Nagarahole belt with 1.97 lakh people on the fringes of the national park and nearly two lakh cattle, most of which graze inside the forests. This degrades the habitat while reducing the fodder availability for the herbivore animals forcing elephants to raid agricultural fields. Local intolerance to elephants also stems from the token compensation awarded for crop loss. A farmer who lost standing crop worth Rs. 4 lakh near Nugu region was sanctioned Rs. 500, much to his chagrin. Increase in crop compensation is being worked out by the State to prevent farmers from taking the law into their hands.
While habitat degradation is one aspect, wildlife biologists opine that inappropriate management of elephant landscape by way of “habitat improvement” could be one of the reasons for higher conflicts. Extensive construction of artificial water holes, water retention check dams and other water harvesting measures within elephant habitats could all reduce calf mortality and artificially augment elephant population beyond the carrying capacity of the area. “Spatial clustering of waterholes changes surface water availability, affecting seasonal movement patterns of elephants”, says Sanjay Gubbi.
Send this article to Friends by