No end to conflict as humans, elephants fight for space

No end to conflict as humans and elephants tussle for space

Representative image. Credit: Reuters Photo

Amid the pitched battle against the Covid-19 pandemic, regions along the Western Ghats and Malnad of Karnataka are at the centre of an increased conflict between humans and elephants. The perennial problem, spanning more than a decade, has only increased in the last few years. Evidently, in less than a month’s time, reports of 50 elephants straying into plantations in Sakleshpur, Alur and Belur taluks of Hassan district have been reported.

Also Read: Scientific measures help save humans, elephants

Even though the region has not reported a single human-animal casualty since September 2018, the conflict has inflicted severe losses on planters, small and marginal farmers. While the state government has proposed creating a corridor and elephant camp in the vicinity to resolve the conflict, the locals have been demanding capture and shifting of elephants. But in the absence of strong political will, the issue is not only snowballing into a major political controversy but is also jeopardising the local economy.

Despite the Forest Department capturing 22 elephants in 2014, the problem has only intensified, with another herd occupying the territory. “There are about 60 to 65 elephants in Hettur, Kadumane and Sakleshpur-Yeslur zones. Of them, nearly 40-45 elephants are roaming in the areas of Alur, Belur, Yeslur and Sakleshpur. Around 80% of these elephants have been only in the plantations since birth, for the last 10 years,” explained Rohit, a coffee planter from Sakleshpur.

Planters and farmers say that the area was never a forest land (semi-malnad) and yet elephants are thriving in the area. “One would not find so many elephants even in the nearby Bisile forest area. Their entire herd is camped in plantations. These revenue lands have been converted into plantations in the last 25 years,” pointed another planter from the region.

Even though the locals have found tech-based solutions to alert them about the elephant herd movement with the help of Mysuru-based Nature Conservation Foundation (Read story on Page 4), the increasing incidents of crop loss has left many angered.

Also Read: 'Focus beyond elephant corridors'

“Instead of compensation, the government gives us ex gratia which is highly unscientific. While the amount shall be processed under Sakala, the ex gratia payment is subject to availability of funds. Until this date, close to about Rs 1 crore is pending with the government,” revealed Rohit.

The problems of human-animal conflict are not just confined to the Sakleshpur-Alur area but all along the Western Ghats region. It gains equal importance in and around the Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary, which has a large number of elephant corridors connecting Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.

Experts from the High Court appointed committee, NGOs and scientists have visited the conflict zones, carried out scientific research and suggested corrective measures. While a few of them have been adhered to, some said to be crucial are still on paper.

Former Principal Chief Conservator of Forests of Karnataka B K Singh opined that the idea of corridor, from its initial concept, was never revived. “Getting back the forest land that was lost to projects and agriculture is next to impossible. Increasing political intervention in retaining such land and declaring them as buffer areas has also added to the problem,” he told DH.

 

Even though the government identified about nine villages in the Hettur hobli of Sakleshpur taluk to notify as a corridor, the move has snowballed into a controversy. “The area identified by the government is not even a forest landscape and elephants hardly frequent those villages. The landscape does not suit the elephant population as an adult elephant forages on 150 to 200 kg of fodder on an average every day. Without such facilities, how would you declare a place as corridor?” questioned Vagish, a planter from Sakleshpur.

On the recommendations of an expert committee, the Karnataka High Court had ruled that the state government shall ‘review all concessions and leases granted for coffee estates, tourism in the elephant range, in order to restore those lands as elephant habitats in a time-bound manner.’

“The government is not clear on how many  such leases have been withdrawn till date. Also, the tourism activities in the area have never been reviewed and there has been an increase in such activities in the name of promoting eco-tourism,” said a conservation activist from Dandeli. Former member of NBWL and trustee of Wildlife First organisation Praveen Bhargav had also apprised the experts committee to deflect infrastructure projects such as Chamarajanagar-Mettupalayam rail line, mini-hydel projects and Bandipur Highway. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Even as the Yettinahole project is likely to leave the elephant habitat in the region fragmented to a certain extent, the locals have now petitioned the state government not to dump any more developmental projects in the region. 

Aware of the impediments at the government level that does not allow everything to happen at one go, the locals have taken it upon themselves to sensitise local people about the elephants.

Further, the experts have also been batting for a separate statutory authority. “Several conservation issues involve topics related to railways, electricity boards, agriculture, revenue and veterinary departments and there is a need to evolve site-specific solutions. Hence, a single statutory authority must manage both tiger and elephant reserves. The existing National Tiger Conservation Authority must be upgraded with a mandate of securing both tigers and elephants including their habitat through appropriate amendments to the Wildlife Protection Act,” said Praveen Bhargav.

Pointing at some flawed measures taken up by the Forest Department, he said that inappropriate creation of water holes close to boundaries of Protected Areas leads to increased human-elephant conflicts.

Lack of coordination

A similar trail of conflicts has also been reported from the neighbouring Kerala. Idukki, Wayanad and Malayattoor area near Ernakulam and Palakkad have witnessed high incidents of human-elephant conflicts. In fact, the casualties in human-elephant conflict is second only to snake bite incidents in Kerala, according to M N Jayachandran, member of the state animal welfare board.

Kerala has seven major elephant corridors and has received funding from the centre to take up several conservation projects. Sources in the Kerala forest department alleged that lack of initiative from revenue officials has delayed these measures. Unscientific fencing, blocking the elephants’ path or access to water bodies has resulted in conflicts. Until 2019, a total of 2,413.7 km solar fencing was done in Kerala besides other initiatives like elephant-proof trenching. About 7,200 hectares of forest land in Kerala is still under illegal possession of 8,390 private persons and organisations.

“The crisis in the Western Ghats area of Maharashtra started in the 2000s. It has been managed to quite an extent but being complex it can escalate,” says Girish Punjabi, a wildlife biologist with Wildlife Conservation Trust.

Working steadfast on the directions of the Karnataka High Court, the Karnataka forest department expressed that it would at least need another three to four years to minimise the incidents of human-elephant conflict across the state.

Sanjai Mohan, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, told DH that they have already prevented elephants from Kodagu area straying into Hassan side. “Our priority is to consolidate the elephant habitat boundary through rail fencing. In a few months time, the work around Bannerghatta will be complete and this would reduce conflicts in the area. Even though there has been acute shortage of funds due to Covid-19 pandemic works, we have been mulling to utilise the funds available under Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority. Karnataka has about Rs 1,350 crore share in it. For this year, we plan to utilise about Rs 200 crore and of which Rs 50 to 60 cr will be spent on rail fencing which will ensure movement of elephants on a known path rather than straying into non-forest lands,” the PCCF explained.

Officials from the Hassan Circle revealed that of the 6,000 plus elephants in Karnataka about 150 are identified as trouble makers. “As and when the conflict escalates, we try to capture the main female elephant in the herd and put a radio collar. But there is no proposal to capture any of the elephants,” the official explained.

(With inputs from Arjun Raghunath and Mrityunjay Bose)