Elephant corridor

Elephantine journey: Maharashtra's elephant corridor bodes well for conservation efforts

Print edition : January 28, 2022

The herd of elephants that crossed over from Chhattisgarh to the forests of Gadchiroli in Maharashtra. The reason for their great trek is not clear. Photo: Photographs: Ramij Salim Sayyad

The thick and mixed old growth offers the elephants their favourite young green bamboo shoots and leaves interspersed with patches of grasslands within the forests and the ‘Buchanania lanzan’, a deciduous tree that produces seeds that are edible for humans. Photo: Photographs: Ramij Salim Sayyad

Water too is freely available in the area since this is the river basin of the Wainganga, Pranhita and Dina rivers. Photo: Photographs: Ramij Salim Sayyad

Essentially, the elephants are wandering in and out of the reserve forest, chancing upon paddy fields and hamlets and then disappearing back into the safety of forests. Photo: Photographs: Ramij Salim Sayyad

The confluence of the Peddavagu and the Pranahita bordering Maharashtra and Telangana. The area is complementary to both elephants and buffaloes. Photo: T. Harpal Singh

Crossing the Wainganga river at Bhamragadh in Gadchiroli, a file picture. The local population are primarily tribals, but officials say despite their connection with the forests they are apprehensive about the elephants. Photo: S. Sudarshan

The entry of a large herd of elephants was a point of concern for the Forest Department. Photo: Photographs: Ramij Salim Sayyad

At The Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve, which extends the protected area for wildlife to wander. The food preferences of the elephants too indicate that they could migrate to the the reserve, which has thick bamboo forests. But to get there they will have to encounter human-dominated landscapes, which may deter them. Photo: Paul Noronha

A herd of 22 elephants has been camping in different parts of Maharashtra’s forested areas with no incidents of conflict, giving conservationists, the Forest Department and State wildlife officials hope about conservation efforts. They believe tourism will provide job opportunities to the youth.

It has been more than three months since a herd of wild elephants wandered across the Chhattisgarh border to the forests of Gadchiroli in eastern Maharashtra. At first it was thought that the herd of 22 elephants, which was believed to have arrived on October 18, would pass through as others had earlier. They entered Maharashtra near Kanhargao Tola village, about 25 kilometres from the Chhattisgarh border, trampling some farmland but eating nothing from near human habitations and attacking no one.

They were bound for the surrounding forests which are thick and mixed old growth, offering the elephants their favourite young green bamboo shoots and leaves interspersed with patches of grasslands within the forests and the Buchanania lanzan, a deciduous tree that produces seeds that are edible for humans. Elephants are extremely attracted to its seeds known as chironji or charoli. Water too is freely available since this is the river basin of the Wainganga, Pranhita and Dina rivers. The presence of other wildlife would have reassured the herd of the relative safety and comfort of their new surroundings.

Protected areas

About 76 per cent of Gadchiroli is classified as forest. It is a wildlife-dominated forest landscape with designated Protected Areas such as the Kolamarka Wild Buffalo Conservation Reserve, the Pranahita Wildlife Sanctuary, the Chaprala Wildlife Sanctuary and the Bhamragadh Wildlife Sanctuary. There is also the Indravati Tiger Reserve in Chhattisgarh, which borders the Kolamarka Reserve in Maharashtra. The limited human presence and the continuous stretches of protected forest areas have encouraged the elephants to explore the area some more.

The herd arrived here after an estimated seven to nine years of steadily wandering south. While no studies have been conducted, officials of the Forest Departments of Odisha, Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra have monitored the herd over the years. They say the herd exited Odisha sometime in 2013 and then stayed for varying periods in the districts of Kanker, Balod, Gariaband and Dhamtari in Chhattisgarh. They started moving out of Dhamtari in September and entered Maharashtra in October.

Soon after its arrival a calf was born, perhaps providing the herd one more reason to settle down for a while. The herd consists of one tusker, adult males and females, two calves that were with the herd when it crossed over, and one calf that was born in December in Maharashtra. A team of 30 people from the Forest Department is monitoring them. While the reason for their great trek is not clear, it is thought that the constriction of forested areas, unrestricted construction of infrastructure projects, and mining have forced the elephants to keep moving.

After their entry into Maharashtra, the elephants have been ‘camping’ at various spots. They stayed for weeks each in the Dhanora South and Murumgaon East ranges in north Gadchiroli as well as the Wadsa forest division towards west Gadchiroli. All these are heavily forested areas. In the colonial era these were designated hunting blocks where licences to kill wildlife for ‘sport’ could be obtained. Porla, Holsa, Kanhargaon are all old hunting blocks—a term, thankfully, no longer in use. In fact, Kanhargaon was recently declared a wildlife sanctuary. It is a welcome declaration because it abuts the Tadoba Tiger Reserve and hence extends the protected area for wildlife to wander. The rest, though not declared as sanctuaries, are part of the larger reserve forest area. It is in this scenario that the herd is continuing its migration.

Tribal people compensated

Essentially, the elephants are wandering in and out of the reserve forest, chancing upon paddy fields and hamlets and then disappearing back into the safety of forests. Their movements seem to indicate a preference to avoid human habitation. The local population are primarily tribals, but officials say despite their connection with the forests they are apprehensive about the elephants. However, the Forest Department’s efforts have reassured the people. When villagers see signs of the herd in their vicinity, they take their own precautions. They choose to sleep on the terraces of homes instead of mud huts. In appreciation, the Forest Department has been distributing blankets in the villages. While the elephants are not eating crops in the fields there is some damage as they pass through. To further keep the peace, the Forest Department has been paying farmers compensation for crops lost during the herd’s migration.

In mid-December the herd entered the Brahmapuri forest division in adjoining Chandrapur district. Brahmapuri is across the Wainganga river that separates the two districts. This forest division is a tiger-dominated landscape and as such the Forest Department has to always grapple with low-level man-animal conflict situations.

The entry of a large herd of elephants was a point of concern for the Forest Department. Standing crops were damaged when the herd crossed over at night. Angry villagers gathered, apparently with no plan, but the Forest Department still called in for police assistance and dispersed the crowd. By morning the elephants had retraced their steps possibly because of the antagonism but more likely because of the paucity of food.

Brahmapuri’s forest is patchier than Gadchiroli’s and the favourite green bamboo of elephants does not grow as luxuriantly as it does in Gadchiroli. Their food preferences indicate that they could migrate to the Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve, which has thick bamboo forests. But to get there they will have to encounter human-dominated landscapes, which may deter them. Food aside, staying in Gadchiroli may have its drawbacks for the elephants, especially in the tendu leaf collecting season when tribal communities spend long hours in the forest gathering the leaves for their earnings.

There seems to be some confusion about whether elephants are endemic to this region of Maharashtra. The Forest Department says there have been no recent sightings in the region, except a couple of years ago when elephants were seen near the Chhattisgarh border but did not cross over.

Wild elephants in Maharashtra

The Forest Department has no record of when wild elephants were last sighted in Gadchiroli. Elephants were used once in a Forest Department camp in southern Gadchiroli to move logs of wood. According to the abstract of a January 2013 research paper titled ‘Past, Present and Future of Wild Elephants in Maharashtra, India’, authored by Prachi Mehta and Jayant Kulkarni of the Wildlife Research and Conservation Society, “From 2002 onwards, wild elephants began extending their range into Maharashtra State from the adjoining State of Karnataka. At present, three groups comprising a total of 11 elephants have become resident in Kolhapur and Sindhudurg districts of Maharashtra. The intensity of crop damage is high because the elephants are feeding on plantation crops that are available throughout the year. From 2002 to 2013, Maharashtra recorded 10,200 crop damage cases by elephants, 13 elephant deaths and 10 human deaths, and paid Rs.90,248 million ($1,641 million) as crop compensation to farmers. Efforts are required to maintain the integrity of forests in the area by disallowing commercial plantations. Involvement of farmers in crop guarding will help reduce crop damage and quantum of ex-gratia payment.”

Kishor Rithe, president of Satpuda Foundation, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) dealing with conservation, and member of the State Board for Wildlife, cites a late 1990s publication called Jungalchi Wat (The Jungle Trail), which says elephants came to the Vidarbha region from Odisha 56 years ago. Its author, Dr Anand Maslekar, a Forest Officer from the erstwhile Chandia district (later bifurcated into Chandrapur and Gadchiroli), wrote about his experiences in the field in the 1960s and about an elephant that caused disruption. He wrote, “While I was in Chandia, a herd of seven elephants came to Alapally from Orissa [Odisha] across Madhya Pradesh (then Chhattisgarh State) and crossed Indravati Nagy. They were in a frenzy. He was the leader of the herd. He injured two of our male elephants. Our elephants are at work. One mahout was injured. I was ordered to kill this elephant. But after a while he dug the ground with the help of his two big tusks and fell out of the pit. All our elephants were brought to Alapally. A detailed report was sent on.” Clearly this must have been at a time when teams of trained elephants were used for forest work.

Kishor Rithe, who was recently conferred with the Maharastrachi Girishkhare award for his contribution to forest and wildlife conservation over the last three decades, has a very positive outlook on the presence of wild elephants in Maharashtra. According to him, “the proposed Sunabeda-Khariyar Tiger Reserve (Odisha), Sitandi-Udanti (Chhattisgarh), Barnavpara-Indravati, Pamed, Kanger Valley in Bastar, Kopela-Kolamarka (Maharashtra), Pranahita (Maharashtra and Telangana), North Bhadrachalam (Telangana)... this whole area is complementary to both elephants and buffaloes. The governments of Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra and Odisha will have to work together for this.”

Wild buffalo sanctuary

Kishor Rithe had helped the Government of Maharashtra set up Kolamarka, the first wild buffalo sanctuary in Gadchiroli, in 2013. He says, “For this [project], we jointly studied the State of Chhattisgarh adjoining Gadchiroli district, the border area of Telangana and the wildlife habitat of Orissa State from 2001 to 2004. The Bombay Natural History Society, Dr Bivash Pandav, Ashish Fernandes, Imran Siddiqui, the then Honorary Wildlife Ranger of Gadchiroli, Mahendra Singh Chavan and Uday Patel were involved in this long survey work.”

According to Kishor Rithe, the government does not prioritise intensive conservation work in Gadchiroli because of the fear that naxalism will interfere with it. He says: “Tiger tourism has sprung up in Chandrapur district today, thousands of youths have got employment, but Gadchiroli district has not got the opportunity despite the richness of nature. Forest officials themselves opposed the creation of the wild buffalo sanctuary. The then Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan, without listening to these officials, supported the preservation of Ran buffaloes. However, forest officials took a stand saying, ‘No sanctuaries, conservation reserves.’ [Their reasoning was fear-based] … that the Forest Department would not be able to work here as there are naxalites in the area. Today, about 22 buffaloes are grazing in the Kolamarka Reserve. This number is higher than the total number in Chhattisgarh. Maharashtra is now known for wild buffalo.”

Both wild buffalo and elephants need large and continuous forest area. In addition, the area should have perennial rivers and large lakes. The former Chandia district, which includes today’s Chandrapur and Gadchiroli, is blessed with many lakes. Kishor Rithe says the largest lakes in India are in the district near Tirupati in Andhra Pradesh. After that it is [the erstwhile] Chandia district. Besides, there are perennial rivers such as the Indravati, Godavari, Pranhita, Wainganga and Wardha. Therefore, Kishor Rithe believes, “wild elephants and buffaloes can live in the combined forest area of the present Chandrapur and Gadchiroli districts as the habitat of these two animals is the same. The boundaries of just one or two small sanctuaries cannot limit these giant mammals. Therefore, I advise forest officials to consider the Chandia landscape together without any limited consideration. Tourism with the dual attraction in the form of elephants and wild buffaloes could provide huge employment opportunities to the youth here.”

Fortunately, there is a happy consensus on the future of the elephant herd in Maharashtra, with conservationists, the Forest Department and State wildlife officials convinced that the elephants can find a home in the State. Even local villagers are not unhappy since the Forest Department has immediately addressed their fears.

Above all, what needs to be remembered is that this herd of 22 large mammals, capable of doing great damage, has been travelling for nine years with no incidents of conflict. Like most wildlife, this herd is clearly looking for a quiet home. As of now Maharashtra has been hospitable to them. Forest officials and wildlifers are of the opinion that if the herd does not move on by March, then they are here to stay, bringing back the era when wild elephants inhabited Maharashtra.