Death most foul
The call came late at night in November of 2010. “A young tuskerhas been electrocuted 2 days ago in Kardoli Village and buried in the forest. Nobody from the village is revealing any information. We are trying to locate the elephant.”Shocked and disappointed, I reached the village near Dandeli-Anshi Tiger Reserve (DATR) in North Kanara District in Karnataka after a day. By then the site where the tusker was buried had been located. It was excavated, a post-mortem done, and buried again by the Forest Department. But there was a disturbing story behind the episode.
Unfortunate end: electrocuted and de-tusked tusker
The incident took place in Kardoli village near Dandeli Forests in North Kanara District. The paddy fields of Kardoli are on encroached forest land all along the boundary of the reserved forests. The village was part of the home range of elephants from Dandeli Sanctuary. Since last three years, a young tusker was creating serious problem for the villagers by raiding their paddy fields regularly. The farmers were very upset about their losses. Moreover,because their fields were on encroached forest land they were not entitled for ex-gratia payment for crop loss from the Forest Department. Unwilling to bear further loss the villagers decided to put an end to the problem by removing the rootcause- they decided to electrocute the tusker by connecting electric wires to a fence along the regular movement path of the elephant. The plan was executed successfully and the young tusker died on the spot. But, in the operation, one of the farmers also got electrocuted and died. The villagers panicked and buried the farmer on one side of the fence and the elephant on other side after removing its tusks. The incident came to light when someone overheard the villagers discussing it in a local bar and informed the authorities.
This incident disappointed me gravely because elephants in North Kanara have had a troubled past and the future of the remaining ones did not look promising. The elephant population in Dandeli forests is much smaller (approximately 50) compared to other areas in southern Karnataka and if they are not wanted here, where would they go?
History of Dandeli Elephants
The elephants of Dandeli sanctuary share their ancestry with elephants of Mysore region. Since 1860 the elephants from Mysore region used to make frequent excursions to Dandeli forests through densely forested areas of Siddapur, Gersoppa, Sirsi and Shimoga. This migration corridor got disrupted due to the construction of Linganmakki dam on Sharavathi Riverin Shimoga District during late 1960. As a result the elephant groups in North Kanara District became isolated from the southern population.
North Kanara, a picturesque coastal district of Karnataka, had about 80% area under forest cover till the last century.After independence, with rapid commercial development, over 1000 km2 forest area in the district was lost to several major hydelprojects, saw mills, Dandeli paper mill, Kaiga nuclear plant,plantation of teak, Eucalyptus and Cashew, and settlements inside the forests.At present the forests are fragmented due to the presence of several villages inside the forests, many of them encroachments. Prior to 1970 there were five elephant herds in North Kanara district. They roamed in the fragmented landscape,making their living by raiding the agricultural crops and plantations. With increasing intensity of crop raiding, the ire of the farmers also increased and they took toretaliatory killings, shooting the crop raiders. In 1978, scientists from Indian Institute of Science (IISC) Bangalore surveyed North Kanara region for elephant presence and reported presence of only two isolated elephant herds with very few individuals. With their southern migration path blocked and a large part of their population eradicated, the remaining elephants were trapped in the fragmented landscape of North Kanara. Such situation can be severely stressful for wild animals. Isolated populations don’t have many choices for survival- either they remain static in the same area and gradually perish or they start dispersing in search of a new habitat. Both choices are risky. It appears that elephants of North Kanara elephants chose the second option.
Moving Ahead to Maharashtra
A few elephants from this population began to progress northwards exploring new areas. In 1996, one herd extended its range to Belgaum District and kept making further forays northwards. In 2002, a group of eleven elephants entered Sindhudurg District in southern Maharashtra. So far, Maharashtra state did not have a population of wild elephants so the local people were unsure of how to deal with them. Initially people were fascinated by wild elephants and began offering food and worshipping them! And when elephants began to raid crop fields, mobbing and stone pelting started. The elephants responded by charging at the crowd causing serious injuries and a few deaths in such incidents. In Kolhapur a forest laborerwas fatally injured when he stayed behind to take a closer look at the sub-adult elephant. After many such incidents, the initial euphoria died down and people began to keep a respectful distance from the elephants.
By 2006, the elephants confidently began to explore potential habitats in Sindhudurg and Kolhapur districts, feeding on coconut, sugarcane, banana, jack-fruit, and paddy and creating a wave of paniceverywhere. Attempts to drive them back to Karnataka failed as some elephants made a permanent residence in Maharashtra.
Map showing northward movement of elephants from Karnataka to Maharashtra and Goa
It appears that the dispersed elephants from Dandeli have found a safer home in Maharashtra but their new home came at a cost: 13 elephants and 10 people have died since 2002 in Maharashtra. One of the most tragic incidents(accidental?)was electrocution of 4 elephants including a gravid female in Kolhapurdistrict. Among the human deaths, people met with unfortunate end by close encounters with elephants. Surprisingly, all human deaths took place during the daytime suggesting that people did not realize the dangers of being close to wild elephants.
To prevent crop damage the Forest Department spent considerable resources by constructing elephant proof trenches across the landscape at several places in Kolhapur and Sindhudurg Districts. This strategy does not appear to be successful because elephants have large home ranges and it is extremely difficult to contain them in a small area or prevent their movement.
Shocking End :Electrocuted elephants in Maharashtra
(source: Kolhapur Forest Department)
Is Co-existence Possible?
At present the elephants in Maharashtra have made their home in Kudal-Kanakavli region of Sindhudurg District and Patne-Chandgad region of Kolhapur District.There are three tuskers, five females and three sub-adults in this population which move between the two districts, not showing any signs of returning to North Kanara. Maharashtra now represents the northernmost population of wild elephants in Western Ghats.
Since last two decades the land-use pattern in both states is altering at an alarming rate. In North Kanara, sugarcane cultivators are encroaching on forest land and in Maharashtraprime forests in Sindhudurg and Kolhapur are being lost to tourist resorts and commercial plantations of oil palm, teak, rubber and pineapple. Once again, will our actions make these elephants homeless, force them to survive on agricultural crops, and get persecuted like their older generations? Do elephants have a future in North Kanara-Maharashtra landscape?
Prime forests making way for the exotics: rubber & pineapple farming in Dodamarg
Some experts are of the opinion that this population is doomed and should be captured and domesticated. My response to this is it is too early to give up hopes. I believe that elephants and people can co-exist if a holistic approach is adopted. Elephants are intelligent animals thatdisplay high site fidelity and have strong social bonds.Loss of crops and human lives to elephants are the main irritant in the relationship with elephants. At present the response to elephant conflict is on a day to day basis without proper planning. Appropriate management interventions and development of a well planned strategy dealing with conflict management and land-use is essential for long term and peaceful co-existence of elephants and humans. Consolidation of habitat and prevention of further habitat loss should form an important component of this strategy.
Since 2009, we are training the farmers of North Kanara in use of simple, low-cost crop protection measures.It is encouraging to note that many farmers have adopted these methods and are successful in protecting their crops from elephants. Decentralizing conflict management by motivating local farmers to protect their own crops appears to be a tenable strategy for reducing conflictintensity and conserving elephants. Such initiatives should be tried in Maharashtra where elephant population is still small and manageable.
Tolerance and respect for elephants is the cornerstone of any plan for their co-existence with humans.Elephants, like all other wildlife, arrived on the earth much before we did so, in that sense, they are the first citizens. Let us give them the space and respect that they deserve.