Where will the elephants go if we continue to destruct the paths that connect their habitats and disturb their movement?
They often trumpeted, anxious and confused â€“ driven from one village, only to be forced out from the neighbouring village. The herd even took refuge in a lake, the matriarch making desperate efforts to calm the young ones, while villagers stood close by shouting and screaming. The image of five elephants deep in the water with raised suspecting trunks constantly sniffing the air still remains fresh in my mind. And the commotion continued for over 12 hours.
On November 18, a small herd of elephants that walked into the farm lands in Sathanur, a village in Kanakapura taluk, found themselves at the mercy of irate locals of two villages - both parties using crackers, loud threats to push the herd away from their lands, unknowingly obstructing the gentle giants from escaping into the forest too. The following morning, the Forest Department landed on the scene and tried to bring some order - and finally, the elephants were guided to take another stressful journey back home.
This season, the elephants have arrived as expected. This might not have been the case several years ago. "I don't remember seeing an elephant in Sathanur about eight to nine years ago. But over the last few years, they have been a part of our lives - our crops, harvest, loss-profit, and our very own safety depends on the occurrence of wild elephants," explains Nagesh, a local. "The land I work on has been raided by elephants over seven times in the last four to five years," he adds.
A ride through small roads within Sathanur town, a few years ago, threw up memories of quaint little village homes with low sloping roofs, fewer traffic, and dark nights, with no lights emanating from farmlands, giving the star-lit sky its due credit. These days, post 7 pm, you will hear locals on motorbikes singing on top of their voice, whistling and shouting while on the move and blinding bright yellow lights stand tall on farmlands. "Things have changed. A few years ago, elephants had raided over 43 farmlands in one night. Today, many people I know have leased out their lands not wanting to face elephants, season after season," recollects Swamy, another local.
Let's face it, things have changed and for obvious reasons - as highlighted in the 'Right of Passage: Elephant Corridors of India', a study recently published by the Wildlife Trust of India in collaboration with Project Elephant and Elephant Family, a UK-based non-profit. The study identifies and records details pertaining to 101 elephant corridors across India. The report states that about 74% corridors are of a width of one kilometre or less today, compared with 45.5% in 2005, and only 22% corridors are of a width of one to three km now, compared with 41% in 2005.
This clearly depicts the thinning of elephant corridors in India over the past 12 years. It's disheartening to know that in southern India, there is one corridor for every 1,410 sq km of available elephant habitat. Where will the elephants go while we aggressively continue to deplete their 'right of passage'?
The other side
Unlike other towns like Hassan, Sathanur does not host any resident (wild) elephants. A lone tusker or a herd is most often heard or spotted only in the late evenings. Santhaur, currently with no Range Forest Officer (RFO) in attendance, is under the supervision of RFO Halagur, Kiran. "As it is the harvest season right now, farmers are perpetually on the edge and we are doing everything we can to support them and ensure safe passage to elephants."
Things have been changing over the years. With entry to the Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary becoming more regulated and low tolerance exhibited by rangers towards locals and tourists who play loud music and drink around places like Muthathi, there are more displeased individuals among the locals than before, states the RFO. "There is anger towards the Forest Department, also because we are not tolerant to illegal chopping of trees and movement within the forests," adds Kiran.
There is also the issue of participation - when the Forest Department tries to drive a herd away from a farmland, neighbouring farmers block them fearing for their own land. "Earlier, there were four night-watchers, we now have eight and have deputed two vehicles to speed up our response time to SOS calls. There is a small canal bordering the forest, through which elephants find their way into farmlands. We have sent a proposal seeking permissions to build a cement wall at this location to stop this passage," he adds. Many villagers feel positive about the move.
It's interesting to note that farmers do not hate elephants; in fact, some of the farmers I spoke to expressed their sympathy for the animal. "On some evenings, you can hear the crackers followed by the trumpeting of elephants, the voices seem faint at times. But sometimes, when they get loud, I know it's my time to stay on guard. This summer, one elephant was found dead from dehydration. They come near the lake for water. They are also helpless, I truly feel sorry for them," says Hanmanthaiah, a farmer.
This reminds me of an incident that occurred in January this year. A forest guard was killed by a tusker in Sathanur. The tusker was found at the same spot for the next two to three days. Many farmers, including those whose farmlands were frequently being raided by elephants opined that the tusker felt guilty for killing the man who protects his habitat.
Many would call this talk anthropomorphism, but it also reminds me of a profound statement made by Primatologist Frans de Waal in his book, The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism among the Primates, "Those who exclaim that 'animals are not people' tend to forget that, while true, it is equally true that people are animals. To minimise the complexity of animal behaviour without doing the same for human behaviour erects an artificial barrier."