The elephant in the room

When forests fragment, elephant populations fragment too. Just as fragmented forests become unviable, fragmented elephant populations are doomed to dwindle. A consequence of this can be reduced flow in the rivers, such as the Bhavani in Tamil Nadu.

Published : Nov 27, 2013 12:30 IST

A tusker about to charge in Kabini, Karnataka. The spatial demands of elephants are large.

A tusker about to charge in Kabini, Karnataka. The spatial demands of elephants are large.

THE annual migration of elephant herds has always been an endearing spectacle of nature. The pachyderms move in large numbers, rumbling through vast stretches of forest and open land and ploughing through the rivers and streams. Baby elephants playfully tumbling along under the protection of their mothers and aunts would strangely juxtapose the image of size and strength with that of tenderness and play. The majesty of the huge mass moving against the backdrop of verdant forests would invoke an image of eternal harmony set in nature’s great rhythm. It is as if the forest itself has chosen to move in the form of elephants. This is hardly hyperbole as this multidimensional interconnectedness between the elephant and the forest is a scientific truism. When forests fragment, elephant populations fragment too. Just as fragmented forests become unviable, fragmented elephant populations are doomed to dwindle.

Elephants, on account of their huge spatio-temporal needs, landscape the forests in which they move about as part of a complex relationship evolved over millions of years. Research has revealed that a decline in mega-fauna populations will seriously impair the long-term viability of terrestrial ecosystems and in time threaten the very existence of the forests. That is why the prospect of increasing fragmentation of forests in the face of anthropogenic pressures has become a prime ecological concern the world over. Forest corridors are seen as a mitigating factor that can still attempt to keep forests and wildlife connected and viable.

Research into the Tarangire-Manrya savannah elephants in Tanzania by Valeri Galanti and others in 2005 revealed that much of the human-elephant conflict occurred in places where, along with traditional migratory routes, the savannah had been converted into agricultural lands. They concluded that protecting the entire elephant ecosystem would mean saving these migratory corridors that lay outside the protected area (PA).

Studies in 2005 by Ian Douglas-Hamilton and others on the 5,400-strong Laikipia-Samburu elephant population, the largest in Kenya, showed that corridors were crucial, particularly when large portions of the elephants’ range lay outside the PA network. Planning their conservation within the PAs was unsustainable, the studies concluded. Securing these corridors further underscored the need to reduce the conflict between man and elephant, they added. Studies by Ritesh Joshi and others in the Shivalik elephant landscape in north-western India, too, arrived at similar conclusions, pointing to the dangers of isolated protected areas. They also analysed the adverse impact on elephant numbers in the Rajaji National Park (in Uttarakhand) and the escalating human-animal conflict. Their studies highlighted the mitigating role of corridors. Take the case of the elephants in the Dalma Wildlife Sanctuary in Jharkand, where the PA is only 200 square kilometres but the elephants wander over a much larger area of 2,900 sq km. Besides finding food and water resources, elephant clans have social hierarchy to contend with. They have to steer clear of other elephant groups. Thus, the spatial demands of elephants are large.

Grounded in the context of the Western Ghats, the question of fragmentation and corridors assumes special significance as the health of the hydrology and river systems of India depends on forests. Unlike the mighty rivers of the north, which are glacial in origin, the modest rivers of the south depend completely on the health of the forests.

The Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve (NBR)-Eastern Ghats, comprising the forests of Mudumalai, Bandipur, Nagarhole, B.R. Hills, Brahmagiri, and Silent Valley and the adjoining forests, has the largest Asian elephant population in the world. The vast forests of this region connect the Western Ghats and the Eastern Ghats. Elephants once roamed freely across this vast region. Seasonal variations, monsoon patterns, foraging needs and social hierarchy are the triggers for elephant migration. The vast congregation of elephants on the banks of the Kabini at the height of the summer and the peak of the dry season is an awe-inspiring sight. If the matriarchs and calves migrate in groups in search of food and water, adult bulls go out on solitary expeditions in search of mates. Maintaining a gene pool diversity is essential for the long-term viability of this mammoth herbivore. Thus, a bull from Bandipur or Mudumalai may go to Silent Valley via Nilambur and New Amarambalam and sire calves, making the entire NBR-Eastern Ghats elephant populations contiguous. It must be borne in mind that the picture was very different a couple of centuries ago. These elephant populations were in fact part of a much larger distribution pattern, spanning most of India, and even Mynamar (Burma) and beyond. Studies analysing certain DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) markers have established that the elephants of Myanmar are genetically very close to those in the NBR. On an evolutionary scale, we are already facing ecological impoverishment with this breaking up.

The elephant’s original range in India has not only shrunk but got broken up into north-eastern, Bengal, north-western, central Indian and south Indian populations, along with some splinter groups. With an estimated population of about 6,500 elephants, the NBR-Eastern Ghats landscape has become crucial to their conservation. The total number of elephants now left in the wild in India would be about 24,000. The need for better estimates has been stressed repeatedly.

Vital corridors Here too, we are facing the next tier of fragmentation of elephant landscapes and in some cases it is perhaps threatening to be irreversible. It is in this context that the identified and lost elephant corridors assume significance. Although initiatives such as Project Elephant had been taken by the Union government in the 1990s, the alarming levels of fragmentation and poaching made the Ministry of Environment and Forests constitute an Elephant Task Force (ETF). The ETF submitted its report in August 2010. Some of the key issues it had to grapple with involved fragmentation. The ETF reported that only 40 per cent of the area of the 32 elephant reserves identified was accorded protection in the form of sanctuaries and national parks. How to reconcile developmental priorities with ecological imperatives? How best to lay out and administer an appropriate legal regime and a policy framework that will secure the survival of this unique species and all other wildlife in these forests? These are some of the daunting questions that are being posed. This is the point where conservation efforts transition from ecology to legality, and aesthetics ends up confronting politics.

In the NBR-Eastern Ghats Elephant Landscape, efforts to notify and protect elephant corridors have given rise to a pitched legal battle. Through their early studies, pioneers such as E.R.C. Davidar had pointed to the dangers of fragmentation. Davidar had identified corridors in the 1970s and even initiated correspondence with the State government on the urgent need to secure the corridors of the Segur plateau. The Segur plateau is a majestic stretch of wilderness with a thorny dry habitat connecting it to the vast expanse of the Eastern Ghats and the Mysore plateau. Its unique ecosystem supports wildlife such as Indian hyenas, wild dogs, sloth bears and leopards, besides elephants and tigers. Davidar’s study identified 10 vital corridors encompassing the different geographies in the Nilgiris (see map)—the Nilgiri north slopes and Deccan plateau; the south and south-eastern slopes; the Gudalur plateau; and the Upper Nilgiri plateau.

Since this early work, much research has been done by various agencies, including the home range study by the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS). Of special interest in the current discussion would be the Nilgiri north and Deccan plateau corridors, which enabled elephants to move between the Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary and the Eastern Ghats through the Segur plateau. The summary of all these studies led to the identification of about five corridors in the Nilgiri north slopes and Deccan plateau geography. Despite several recommendations, successive State governments in Tamil Nadu never acted in time to protect the corridors. This indifference and apathy was only punctuated by the enthusiasm of a few far-sighted officers. The wheels of the machinery on the whole never really turned. The population trickle that first started with the construction of the Singara and Moyar hydel power projects grew steadily with new settlers beginning to encroach on lands and forests in the region. Settlers hugely outnumbered the original tribal and forest dwellers in these parts. Masinagudi became a bustling township with resorts proliferating in the adjoining villages through the 1980s and 1990s. Squatters appropriated revenue lands for cultivation and livestock grazing, encouraged possibly by government apathy. As the stress on the migrating elephants increased, the region saw increasing human-elephant conflict. Electric fencing and parcelling out of land into small plots accentuated the destruction. The government, despite the means, legal premises and wherewithal at its disposal to arrest the slide, let the situation go out of hand by not acting on time. In August 2006, the Central government directed the Tamil Nadu government to take necessary action to notify and protect the identified corridors. The State government consequently appointed an exploratory committee vide a government order dated August 21, 2007, to look into the aspect of securing elephant corridors. While the government was dragging its feet, a public interest petition under Article 226 of the Constitution was filed in the Madras High Court in 2008 praying that all encroachments and obstructions in this area be cleared in order to enable the free movement of elephants.

The petition pointed out that the elephants’ migratory routes were getting choked. It further alleged that the Forest Department had not taken any action to evict the encroachers. The court directed the District Collector of Nilgiris to file a status report on the steps taken to clear the corridor of encroachments. This led to the filing of a spate of petitions. There were nearly 30 of them, and this heightened the pitch of the legal battle. Besides, the environmental groups that pleaded for facilitating the free movement of elephants, two other groups of petitioners need to be mentioned. One, members of the Scheduled Tribes (S.Ts) and other traditional forest dwellers and, two, owners of resorts that operated in the region. The resort owners had come together under the umbrella of The Hospitality Association of Mudumalai.

The court directed that no eviction proceedings be initiated against those whose claims were pending under the provisions of the Scheduled Tribes and other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights Act) Act, 2006. In the final orders, the judges directed that their rights under the Act be protected and that just compensation be provided in case relocation was opted for.

In the case of the Hospitality Association’s petition, the court observed, on the basis of material made available to it and the deposition of the Advocate General representing the Government of Tamil Nadu, that the resorts had been built in contravention of statutes such as the Tamil Nadu Preservation of Private Forests Act (TNPPF), 1949, the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, and the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. It further stated that the initial permission obtained was for dwelling houses but later resorts were constructed. The court said that the increase in vehicular traffic as a result of tourist arrivals to these resorts was contributing to the human-animal conflict. In the three years that the court deliberated on the matter, it resorted to extraordinary application of mind to a difficult situation. The court had the government moving. It called for records and status reports from various arms of the government. It appointed an expert committee to identify the elephant corridor in the region. It asked the State government to be clear on the choices it would make on the corridor. The government was asked to choose between the recommendations of the expert committee or the document prepared by the Central government with the support of non-governmental organisations. The government chose to go with the corridor recommended by the court-appointed committee and then it had the corridor notified in a GO dated August 31, 2010. Never once stepping on the prerogatives of the government, the High Court took on the onerous task of getting the government discharge its responsibility in this matter.

The common judgment Justices Elipe Dharma Rao and Hariparanthaman delivered on all the writ petitions on April 7, 2011, will remain a milestone in environmental jurisprudence in India. It cited Article 51-A(g), which states: “It is the duty of every citizen of India to protect and improve the natural environment including wildlife.” The court drew attention to the fact that the Constitution makes the state the guardian of the interests of not just human beings but also wildlife. It follows that it is the state’s duty to protect rivers, lakes and forests. Citing the Supreme Court’s judgment in State of Bihar vs Murad Ali Khan (1988), the order said: “Nature is a series of complex biotic communities of which man is an interdependent part and that it should not be given to a part to trespass and diminish the whole.”

The operational part of the judgment directed the government to invoke and act in accordance with laws and statutes applicable to secure the corridor, be it the FRA, the Land Acquisition Act or Section 3 of the Tamil Nadu Private Forests Assumption and Management Act (LV of 1961), which allowed the State to assume administrative control of private lands where the said Act’s provisions have been contravened. Subsequently, on an appeal, the Supreme Court granted interim relief to some parts of this judgment and the matter is pending in the apex court.

The debate in India has been needlessly polarised. The legal contestation was illustrative of the various pulls that the forests and wildlife face. While resolving this in the case of the Segur plateau, the government has to be firm in enforcing applicable laws. Had encroachment been prevented early and had the Tamil Nadu Private Forests Act monitoring committee functioned effectively, much of the damage to the landscape could have been prevented. Numerous luxury resorts, private farm houses and vacation villas are clearly out of place in these forests. Notifying these areas as an ESA (ecological sensitive area) under the Environmental Protection Act, as recommended by the ETF, will ensure proper land use and ecological integrity regardless of ownership. The government can choose its options diligently.

The last task in Segur, which is difficult and complex, is reconciling the subsistence needs of the S.T. people, or forest dwellers, with that of the long-term survival of wildlife. Where the issue is not about subsistence but about market-driven farming, clearly elephants should be given the benefit of any early solution. In the case of subsistence farming, instead of reducing this to a picture of forest dwellers versus wildlife, lasting solutions should be found. If the government shows greater commitment and earnestness, the future of both can be secured. Plenty of resources are available to accomplish this. What is needed is the will and ability to instil trust among those involved.

If in all this clamour we lose the elephants and the forests they dwell in, it will be a sad commentary on our times in more ways than one. Hydrology will be an important issue, for water is becoming a scarce resource. Elephants as mega-herbivores are the churners of the forest. Being inefficient feeders, they eat a lot and their alimentary canal is a kind of nature’s digester.

Their dung not only sustains soil biotic and abiotic dynamics but the seeds of several species of the thorn forests of Segur-Moyar germinate well only after they pass through the gut of these gentle giants.

When elephants move about, soil and water sources are opened up for microorganisms, insects and other life. Cycles synchronise and life harmonises in the forest.

These are some aspects of this complex interdependence. Elephants are crucial for the sustenance of the thorn forests that lie east of Mudumalai and where the northern drainage of the upper Nilgiri plateau collects to form the Moyar. Despite being a region of low rainfall in a dry ecosystem, with an average annual precipitation of about 60 centimetres, these forests miraculously sustain the Moyar’s perennial flow.

The Moyar and the Bhavani together become the Bhavani that joins the Cauvery. Apart from the Tamiraparani, the Bhavani is the only other perennial river in Tamil Nadu. It will be no exaggeration to say that the Moyar owes its copious flow to the elephants. So, a self-centred preservation instinct should make us commit ourselves to saving the animal that resembles us in many ways—in social behaviour, intelligence, affinity, play and display of deep affection.

A. Rangarajan is a freelance writer.

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