Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Making way for India’s elephants

New Delhi: The picturesque town of Valparai is nestled in the Anamalais, part of the Western Ghats in Tamil Nadu, amid 200 square kilometres of coffee, cardamom, tea and eucalyptus plantations surrounded by misty rainforests. While the countryside is spectacular, it’s also a biodiversity hot spot and well-known pachyderm country—Anamalai means Elephant Hills in Tamil. It’s also a part of the country that’s reputed for its tiger reserves, wildlife sanctuaries and reserved forest. 

But the spread of humans has led to increasing conflict with the wildlife, especially the elephants after which the hills are named. There are about 100,000 people scattered across the area—their habitations are disrupting movement of the animals from one forest patch to another, leading to frequent human-elephant conflict, resulting in people dying and damage to property. 

One such recent episode was sparked by villagers chasing elephants away from their fields. Four of the wild elephants got separated from the herd and found their way to Karnataka’s Mysore city across the state border. A security guard at an ATM was killed, many people were hurt and several cars were damaged as the elephants turned violent in what for them was a strange and hostile environment.
Such incidents are not the norm—most conflict occurs away from the cities. Since 2002, wildlife scientist M. Ananda Kumar of the Nature Conservation Foundation has been studying how elephants have been using the Valparai area. 

“Most of the human deaths due to elephants occurred either late in the evening or at night when people were unaware of the elephant’s presence and movement,” he said. “We have observed that nearly 82% people died due to conflict with elephants on the main road, passing through plantations. The lack of information about elephants in the vicinity is the main reason for fatal encounters.”

To address this issue, Kumar and his team have developed the Elephant Information Network involving local communities and stakeholders such as estate workers and companies. 

“We have established Conflict Response Units (CRUs) with the involvement of local tribal people who are good in tracking elephants in estates,” Kumar said.
The CRU information is then communicated to the local community through a bulk SMS service, letting people know about the presence of elephants in the vicinity. The SMS carries information in English and Tamil on the presence of elephants, with the estate name, field number and landmarks to pinpoint the location for people residing within a 2km radius. Information on precautionary measures and the importance of elephants in terms of their biology and societal bonds, drawing parallels with human society, are also conveyed through the SMS service once a week.

Kumar and his team are now planning to install early warning elephant alert indicators such as LED lights in localities prone to high conflict along elephant movement routes, so that people avoid them. 

Each such indicator will also contain an SIM card that can be used in a mobile phone. “We hope that these conflict mitigation measures will not only reduce the risk of direct encounters with elephants but also ease pressures on elephants as a result of harassment by people,” Kumar said.
 Human-elephant conflict has been rising all over the country primarily due to the increasing spread of people into areas occupied by the wildlife. This has reduced natural forest cover over the years, affecting elephants. As forests become more fragmented or are converted to monoculture plantations, elephant migratory and feeding patterns are getting disrupted. The greatest damage is the diversion of forests through government policy—large tracts are converted into plantations, or projects such as dams or mines.

Unlike the tiger, which faces extinction, the elephants face a crisis of attrition. Elephant killings, retaliatory in nature, have also been rising, thereby escalating the conservation problem. Elephants in search of food are increasingly raiding fields adjoining forests and breaking down houses to get at the harvested crop.

Apart from crop damage, people have been getting killed and injured in all the elephant-range states in the country— Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Kerala, Maharashtra, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Orissa, Tamil Nadu, Tripura, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. 

The state governments are being given financial assistance by the ministry of environment and forests under the centrally sponsored Project Elephant for the mitigation of conflict in the shape of grants for damage to crops due to wild elephants, and also for loss of life and injury (see table above).

“Every year HEC (human-elephant conflict) takes about 350 to 400 human lives and (that of) 80 to 100 elephants,” said wildlife scientist and elephant specialist Sandip Tiwari of Wildlife Trust of India (WTI). Mitigation exercises are fairly traditional—drum-beating, noise-making, fire crackers, lights and torches; physical barriers such as stone walls, electric fencing, trenches; engaging “koonkies” or trained elephants, to drive the herds back into the forest. But no one method has worked as a stand alone solution for conflict resolution. Elephants are in any case intelligent and adaptable—techniques that were initially successful lose their effectiveness over time. 

Keeping the corridors clear is a difficult task with increasing demographic pressure and developmental aspirations, so conflict is in a way inevitable.

In order to alleviate the problem and ensure the long-term future of the Asian elephant, the environment ministry’s Elephant Task Force has recommended that all corridors should be declared ecologically sensitive areas by the respective state governments and also legally protected under various laws of the state. It has also said that land use policies in elephant habitats, especially corridors, must be made clear to prevent further fragmentation of habitat or escalation of conflict between the animals and people.

Another recommendation is to demarcate such corridors, inform people about their importance and discourage any activity detrimental to wildlife movement. Signage needs to be erected at all the identified corridors, it has recommended. Project Elephant and WTI are already putting in place uniform signage at all identified corridors with the approval of the respective state forest department. They are also purchasing land to secure habitats under the legal protection of the respective forest department.

In this complex landscape of conservation, Kumar’s communication system of early warning SMSes goes to prove that scaling down man-elephant conflict is not impossible. What’s needed are functional methods that can be applied across all elephant landscapes in India to avoid direct confrontation.

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