Hassan's elephants: Will they survive?

Hassan's elephants: Will they survive?

HUMAN-ELEPHANT CONFLICT

Hassan's elephants: Will they  survive?

It was a late evening setting with a pre-monsoon drizzle. Over 200 people had gathered in spite of the rain and the darkness. Residents of Hetthur, a typical Malnad village in the State’s Hassan district crowded around one of the proud sons of the State.

The occasional vehicular traffic was blocked as Hetthur residents eagerly talked to Anil Kumble; however they spoke of neither cricket nor spin bowling.

Anil now dons the cap of the Vice-Chairman of the State Board for Wildlife. The villagers were deliberating with him seeking a solution to mitigate the human-elephant conflict in their area, a serious problem in the district of Hassan.

The district of Hassan, which has a combination of both dry plains and the typical Western Ghat forest areas, has two distinct populations of elephants. A small population of about 25 elephants are found in the reserved forests of Kattepura and Doddabetta in the backwaters of the Hemavathi reservoir. The other larger population is found in Bisle, Kagneri, Kanchankumari, Kemphole, Bhagimalai and other reserved forests abutting the Pushpagiri Wildlife Sanctuary.

The elephants found in Kattepura and Doddabetta are locked in tiny islands of forests that have no connectivity to any other larger elephant habitats to allow dispersal across the larger landscape. This population is in the midst of human settlements and has little source of natural forage. The elephants are forced to source their required nutrients and food from surrounding crop fields.

These pachyderms literally spend their lives in coffee plantations, paddy fields and villages leading to severe conflict. This conflict has cost both humans and elephants immensely. In the last ten years, 28 people have lost their lives in accidents involving elephants in the district. It has cost the government nearly Rs 3.5 crore by way of compensation paid for crop damages and loss of human life. In response, too often, the solution to the problem has come from electricity tapped into farm fences. Four elephants have been electrocuted in the last one year alone.

Farmers in the district have resorted to all forms of opposition to express their angst from softer to more bred-in-the-bone approaches. Representations, protests, highway blockades, locking up forest officials, they have tried it all. Obviously a permanent solution needs to be found.

What choices exist when an endangered wildlife species genuinely causes serious damages to human life and livelihoods and has little long-term future in the area? The world over, wherever such situations have existed, managers follow either lethal or non-lethal approaches to mitigate conflicts. However the solution needs to be socially, culturally and ecologically acceptable.

The two possible options contemplated by the government at Hassan include translocation of these herds to a larger elephant habitat or capturing these animals to be permanently put in elephant camps.

A report prepared by M K Appaiah, a retired forest official, and elephant biologist Ajai Desai have suggested translocation of these elephant herds to far-off elephant habitats. If the translocation course is taken, then the elephants will be captured in herds rather than individuals as elephants form tight family groups.

There are fewer chances of the animals moving back to their original home ranges if translocated to distant forest areas. Such kinds of experiments are regularly carried out in some African countries. This month, in a massive exercise, Kenyan authorities have shifted 60 elephants from Narok North district into Maasai Mara National Reserve to reduce conflicts.

They intend to shift another 140 if the current operation succeeds.
In South Africa, elephant translocation efforts have had mixed results. In some instances, elephants have returned to their former home ranges and there are instances where they have successfully settled in their new homes. However, this is a new experiment for Karnataka and should be seen with caution and patience.

If science fails
Wildlife ecology is projected as one of the tools to solve conservation problems. Ecologists, time and again, blame managers for not following conservation principles based on science.

However on subjects like these, science has found little time or interest to examine the problem and find solutions based on which managers could have adopted decisions.
If science continues to fail to provide timely, pragmatic results that are meaningful to wildlife management, it will not be surprising if managers prevail to show apathy towards wildlife research.

Last elephants standing...
In Karnataka, elephants now survive in good numbers only in the southern Western Ghats with massive contraction of their historical distribution ranges. They have lost ground in the northern parts of the Ghats with a handful surviving in Dandeli Tiger Reserve.

In the central Western Ghats, only Bhadra Tiger Reserve has a decent population. However it is disjointed from the bigger population that survives in Nagarahole, Bandipur, B R Hills and M M Hills. The population of elephants in Cauvery wildlife sanctuary and Bannerghatta National Park hangs under severe stress. Though there are smaller links for these small populations to larger elephant grounds through forest in Tamilnadu, their future depends on the decisions that would be taken across the border.

The elephant habitats in the Hassan district have been greatly modified. The recent threat comes in the form of ‘green energy’ projects where 44 run-of-the-river mini-hydel projects have been permitted across the River Nethravathi, with most of them falling within the current domain of jumbos.

Moving away from the parochial approach, we need to understand that destruction, fragmentation and degradation of wildlife habitats, which has left a huge footprint on the elephants of Hassan, can cause similar effects on other habitat specialist wildlife species in the future. ‘Destruction’ has always happened in history, but the destroyers and the opportunities for destruction were fewer.

A sub-population of the Hassan elephants will go locally extinct during our lifetimes, but hopefully this morbid event will not be repeated in the other surviving elephant sub-population in the district.

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