A ‘jumbo’ restraint to keep them out

On December 15, a wild elephant died when it tried crossing an iron fence in the Nagarhole National Park in Karnataka. It got stuck on the fence, as a result of which its diaphragm collapsed under its weight, leading to its death.

What happened in Nagarhole shows that resolving human-wildlife conflict is not straightforward. But Kerala officials claim to have found a way which will keep the elephants away from humans, and pose no danger to the jumbos too.

The Kerala Forest Department has developed a barrier called the ‘crash guard rope fencing’ to limit wild elephants to forests areas. The five-metre-high barrier consists of iron ropes connected across five galvanised steel rods and will be set up along the border areas of forests.

The project has gained the approval of IIT-Palakkad (which is also testing the design of the barrier) and of Dr PS Easa, an elephant expert and former head of Kerala Forest Research Institute (KFRI). The wall has been conceptualised by former Mankulam Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) BN Nagaraj. It has been set up along a 1.2 km stretch by the Karinthiri river from Anakulam to Valiyaparakkuty at a cost of Rs 50 lakh to prevent elephants from entering farmlands in Anakulam.

The forest department has also taken a decision to encourage setting up of crash guard rope fencing henceforth as opposed to traditional methods to keep elephants away from human habitats.

BN Nagaraj, the man behind the concept, is currently the Estate Officer, forest headquarters, Thiruvananthapuram. “The method is more practical to prevent attacks by wild animals in the vicinity of forests. Last year, we constructed one such fencing at the Mankulam forest division in Idukki and it has worked well until now,” he said.

Nagaraj said that earlier, solar fencing, where animals that come in contact with the fencing get electric shocks, was used to keep elephants at bay. “But the shocks would provoke the jumbos even more, and would make them more determined to enter the farms and destroy the crops. The new method, on the other hand, is animal friendly,” hw said. He said this was vindicated by recordings of camera traps placed near the fencing, which showed wild elephants often approaching the fences and retreating without trying to mount or damage them.

Other structures that the forest department has used to form barriers include walls, rail fences, stone pitched trenches and steel fences. But officials say that compared to ‘crash guard rope fencing,’ these methods are more expensive and less effective and would be discarded from now. An order issued by the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests also states the same.

It says, “The crash guard rope fencing option was recently constructed on a pilot basis at Mankulam forest division for 1.2 km and its design is being tested by IIT-Palakkad so as to replicate it on a bigger scale elsewhere. Hence, in phase II of the project, this option has been included replacing other high cost physical barriers and while doing so, the total length of all barriers included in the initial detailed project report (291 km) will not be reduced but in fact will be slightly increased (296.9 km).”

While a good fencing would go a long way in resolving human-animal conflicts, the Kerala forest department is considering going one step further and relocating people residing near the borders of forest areas. The government has allotted Rs 49.70 crore for the relocation of 497 families in such areas, with each family to receive Rs 10 lakh in cash as compensation.

Chinnakkanal and nearby villages in Munnar district face frequent encounters with wild elephants while in Idukki district, 301 colony, Sinkukandam, 80 acre, BL Ram, Moolathura, Muthamman colony and Cementpalam are the most affected areas. Devikulam range officer Nibu Kiran said once the allotted funds are received, the families from Sinkukandam and 301 colony areas would be relocated.

Recently, Munnar DFO Narendara Babu submitted a detailed proposal to the Chief Wildlife Warden which recommended that the government must relocate the families living within or near forest areas to prevent tusker menace in Chinnakkanal and Munnar areas.

During the 2002-2003 period, the AK Antony government allowed human settlements in Sinkukandam, 301 colony and 80 acre and since then, elephant encounters have increased in these areas. Since 2010, over 28 lives have been lost due to attacks by wild elephant in the Munnar wildlife division, with four such instances occurring in 2018.

On May 16, Velu (55), a Moolathara native and a cardamom estate watcher, was trampled to death by a wild elephant at Puthuppara near Anayirankal. On July 4, a tribal farmer Thankachen (55) met with the same fate at Sinkukandam near Anayirankal, as did cardamom estate supervisor Kumar (46) on July 11 at Rajappara near Chinnakkanal and estate watcher Muthayya (65) on September 20 at Puthuppara.

(The writer is a member of The NewsCart, a Bengaluru-based media startup)

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A ‘jumbo’ restraint to keep them out

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