'Focus beyond elephant corridors'

'Focus beyond elephant corridors'

Conflict management

R Sukumar

Elephants are constantly in the news albeit for the wrong reasons – being stuck while trying to crawl under an iron barrier, knocked down by a train, electrocuted, or having fallen into an open well. 

People are also regularly killed in elephant attacks. Karnataka and its neighbouring states have been witnessing an increase in these incidents, which get clubbed under the rubric of “human-animal conflict”. 

The reasons for elephant-human conflict is complex, related to ecological changes within elephant habitats, land-use changes outside traditional elephant ranges, climatic factors, and the biology of elephants. Even if the issue of increase in elephant population is debatable, the fact is that the range of the elephant has expanded substantially in Karnataka over the past few decades, from primarily forested areas into coffee plantations and other landscapes under agriculture and human settlement. 

Read: No end to conflict as humans, elephants fight for space

So, how do we deal with this situation? “Elephant corridors” are often flagged as the solution to all issues related to the species, but are these sufficient?

Karnataka is not only home to the largest elephant population in India but also strengthened the first elephant corridor in the country. More than two decades ago, the Kaniyanpura elephant corridor located to the north of the Moyar River gorge in Bandipur National Park was under distinct threat of being severed, with consequences for the movement of dozens or even a few hundred elephants between the western sector of Bandipur and its eastern sector which eventually connects to the forests of Sathyamangalam in Tamil Nadu and Chamarajanagar in Karnataka. 

When this threat was brought to the notice of the Karnataka Forest Department, Rs 25 lakh was immediately released for restoration of the Kaniyanpura corridor in 1999 through the Project Elephant Steering Committee.

Without displacing people, the corridor was widened from a mere 50 metres to about 300 metres. Another example was a very narrow passage of forest connecting the Doddasampige forests of BRT Sanctuary with those of Kollegal Forest Division. 

Strengthening corridors helps avoid further fragmentation of large landscapes and reduces the risks of conflicts between elephants and people at these locations, but corridors should not be thought of as a panacea for resolving all such conflicts.

Conflict management has to go much beyond strengthening elephant corridors. The report submitted by Karnataka Elephant Task Force to the Karnataka High Court in 2012, laid out the framework for managing elephant populations of the state. Most of the task force's recommendations were accepted by the High Court in its judgment of October 2013. These recommendations included designating three zones for managing elephants: the Elephant Conservation Zone, Elephant-Human Co-existence Zone and Elephant Removal Zone. 

Also Read: Scientific measures help save humans, elephants

At the time, it was estimated that 90% of Karnataka’s elephant population resided within potential conservation zones comprising mostly National Parks, Wildlife Sanctuaries and Reserve Forests, another 8% or so inhabited co-existence zones, and only about 2% moved outside these areas, where they came into acute conflict with people.

The task force gave a number of recommendations on the use of appropriate barriers, technology, ex gratia payments, capture of elephants, relocation and so on to mitigate human-elephant conflicts. It is time to revisit the report of the Karnataka Elephant Task Force and implement many of its practical recommendations, to safeguard both the wild elephant population as well as people’s lives and livelihoods.

(The writer is professor of ecology at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru)