Elephantine menace haunts Kodagu district


Many humans, jumbos have died, crops damaged in man-animal conflict

Madikeri: Kodagu, also known as Coorg, is a beautiful hill station nestled in the Western Ghats of Southwestern Karnataka. It is famous for its coffee plantations, steep hills, countless streams, rich flora and fauna, lush green forests and breathtaking views. The smallest of all districts in the State, Kodagu is spread over 4,102 square km. The one menace that haunts this picturesque district is from animals, particularly elephants and tigers as it shares border with the Nagarhole wildlife sanctuary. Nagarhole is part of one of the largest Wild Asian Elephant ranges harbouring India's largest elephant population. As per the forest department's census the district has 1600-1800 elephants. The sanctuary is also third largest tiger density sanctuary in the country. While the Jim Corbett wildlife sanctuary in Uttar Pradesh has 140 tigers per 100 sq km, the Kajiranga wildlife sanctuary has 130, Nagarhole is home to 120 big cats.

Two taluks Ponnampet and Virajpet which are adjacent to the Nagarhole wildlife sanctuary bear the brunt of elephant and tiger menace. Elephants known for migratory nature travel hundreds of km following a fixed track for generations. As their natural habitats are shrinking due to human encroachment for agriculture and other purposes, elephants coming in contact with people living close to forests become inevitable. As a result, jumbos in their desperate search for food raid crops. This conflict invariably leads to death of humans as well as elephants.

Speaking to The Hans India on Saturday, Deputy Conservator of Forests and Nagarhole Tiger Reserve Director D Mahesh Kumar said that the elephant population in the sanctuary is stable compared to last one decade. He said the State has 6,300-6,500 elephants more than 50 percent of whom live in Nagarhole and Bandipura sanctuaries.

Commenting on the rise of menace, he pointed out that elephants always move from one place to another. "Their paths have changed a lot now as people have converted jungles into plantations and constructed buildings. This obstruction to their movement is causing a conflict between humans and animals."

According to Praveen Uthappa, a coffee grower from Ponnampet, elephants stray into human habitats owing to shortage of fodder and drinking water. Bamboo, the main fodder of the elephants, has become scarce over the past two decades in the forests. Adding to this, the forest department has failed to plant fruit trees and, instead, raised teak and other trees as timber from them is commercially beneficial. Due to this, elephants do not get enough food in their natural habitats and the hunger prompts them to raid coffee and other estates frequently, said Uthappa.

According to the forest department data, more than 80 people and 50 jumbos have lost their lives in the last one decade in the district. Most of elephant deaths occur owing to electrocution. Dangling power lines or electric fencing erected by farmers to protect their crops result in electrocution of innocent animals. Death of elephant calves after getting stuck in the mud and water while crossing rivers is also common.

More than 50 percent of rural areas in the district are prone to wild elephant menace while villagers in Ponnampet and Virajpet taluk suffer a double whammy as they have to contend with danger from both elephants and tigers. The latter stray out of their habitats in Nagarhole wildlife sanctuary and prey on cattle. Forest officials says that weak and old tigers kill cattle as they are unable to hunt deer because of their age. In the last three years, five people have lost their lives in tiger attacks. In the same period, more than 500 cattle have fallen prey to tigers in the villages abutting the sanctuary.

Annira Harish Madappa , a small coffee grower in Srimangala in Ponnampet taluk, said that thousands of farmers have switched over to dairy farming following fall in coffee prices, increased production cost and adverse climatic conditions. But marauding tigers target milk-yielding cows and buffalos that cost over Rs 30,000-40,000. The forest department provides a compensation of just Rs 10,000-Rs 15,0000 for each cow/buffalo killed by tigers that too after farmers running from pillar to post.

He recalled wild elephants destroying paddy, coconut, plantain crops in one night causing crushing blow to farmers. But the forest department provides a meagre compensation. Highlighting the trauma a farmer has to go through for compensation, Madappa said if one suffers a crop loss of Rs 25,000, he has to approach the local deputy range forest officer (DRFO) who will visit the spot and conduct a mahazar and submit a report to the range forest officer. Then the RFO recommends the compensation to deputy conservator of forests (DCF).

The DCF only has powers to issue cheques. But the farmer has to wait at least three months to get a compensation cheque, by that time wild elephants may ride the same fields 4-5 times more, he added.

Though the forest department has taken several measures to reduce human-animal conflict, they are inadequate and not permanent solutions.

Following several protests by farmers demanding a mechanism to deal with the menace, the Virajpet division forest officers have set up a Rapid Response Teams (RRT) which rush to salvage the situation in case a tiger or elephants cross into human habitats. The RRT has WhatsApp groups comprising of villagers and forest department personnel. RRT staff camp in the outskirts of villages and watch the movement of elephants. If elephants enter human habitats, they chase away the animals into the forest by bursting crackers.

Environmentalists have urged the government to take steps to stop tourism in eco sensitive areas. Former president of Coorg Wildlife Society, retired Colonel Cheppudira P. Muthanna had written to then Chief Minister B.S. Yediyurappa in March this year, drawing his attention to the sufferings of the people owing to mindless destruction of wild habitats in the name of big projects.

Muthanna suggested appointment of a special officer of the rank of DCF to tackle the animal menace in south Kodagu. The letter stated that whenever there is a dangerous situation arising due to straying of tigers or leopards outside of their habitats, villagers should be given permission to hunt them down.

According to Muthanna, a major reason for the tiger menace is due to growth of invasive species like Lantana Camara and Senna Spectabilis in vast areas of forests. "Deer and other prey congregate in small patches of forests that are free from weeds for grazing. This leads to a number of tigers also gathering in the same restricted area and outbreak of fierce fights among them. In most such cases, wounded tigers move out of the forest. Therefore, sufficient funds are required for eradication of invasive species," he suggested. Some of the other measures suggested to the CM are: opening of wildlife corridors from

Nagarahole to Brahmagiri area in Kutta region of South Kodagu, establishment of an Ecological Territorial Army Unit for Kodagu comprising able-bodied ex-servicemen to undertake forest land restoration, mitigation of forest fires and eradication of invasive species.

He also called for a policy decision to prevent further destruction of forests for development of projects such as dams, highways, railways, powerlines etc..

Tourism has done tremendous damage to Kodagu. There should be no further investment in Kodagu tourism. Tourism in Kodagu should be regulated and not promoted, he said in his letter to Yediyurappa. Funds for all the proposed projects in Kodagu must be diverted to improve the economic condition of the people. "There is a need to protect Kodagu as the principal catchment of River Cauvery and the proposals for multi-lane National Highways, railway lines and airport for Kodagu must be scrapped as none of them will benefit people in the region in any way and will only serve to further destroy the environment and landscape of Kodagu," he urged the CM.

The forest department constructed elephant proof trenches (EPT) to prevent entry of wildlife into human habitats as far back as in 1990. However, they proved no match to the cunning elephants which pushed soil into the pits and crossed the EPTs. Then the department built solar fencing. But they pulled down wooden poles and breached the hurdles. Now, the forest department has discovered barricade fencing as an effective way but it requires huge amount of money. Scrap railway iron tracks are erected along the forest. The elephants can't cross the barricades nor can they destroy the iron pillars. This is really effective but it requires Rs 1.5 crore to build one-km barricade.

The district has more than 2,500 km long forest borders and barricade fencing is financially unviable. However, officials have erected barricades in a few km. But owing to shortage of funds, the project is still pending. This method has proved successful in checking elephant menace in Sri Lanka, Assam and other parts of the country. The forest department has radio collared matriarchs of eight elephant herds to track their movements. The location of the elephants received from the GPS collars is passed on to the field staff through a mobile app, helping them fend off any potential conflict situation by alerting people in the vicinity. This helps in saving human lives. Besides protecting people, radio collaring of the elephants has helped forest officials track elephant pathways with greater precision, understand the seasonal variations in the movement patterns of the jumbos and the behavioral differences of different herds and individual elephants.

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