Living on the edge

Print edition : July 29, 2011

A HERD OF elephants in the Valparai plateau. About 150 years ago, British planters converted most of the 220 sq km plateau into tea and coffee plantations, destroying prime rainforests and reducing the streams and nullahs in them to grassy swamps. Elephants move between forest patches through the tea gardens and use the swamps to rest and feed on the grass. - M. ANANDA KUMAR/NCF

Wild elephants, finding their migratory corridors blocked by human activity, increasingly enter villages, towns and even cities.

A SINGLE betel leaf and some tobacco and areca nuts have been placed on the dry bed of a narrow channel at a T-junction of two kutcha roads at Chinna Thadagam village near Coimbatore city in Tamil Nadu. A small piece of granite rests on a ledge in the earthen wall abutting the channel. This marks the spot where an elephant attacked and killed Chinma (48), late on the night of May 17. The betel leaf, tobacco and areca nuts are offerings made to her by her husband, Perumal.

Perumal broke down while narrating the incident. It was around 10-45 p.m. when Chinma told him that she wanted to ease herself. They walked a few hundred metres from their tenement, and Perumal waited in a shed for his wife to return. But Chinma, on her way back, walked straight into an elephant standing near a thorny bush. It seized her with the trunk and flung her against the earthen bund. Perumal said neither he nor Chinma had seen the elephant.

The sun was shining bright on the Valparai plateau, 110 km from Coimbatore, on the morning of March 6. M. Annappan (53), a worker in Ryan Division of TANTEA (Tamil Nadu Tea Plantations Corporation Limited), had walked down from his tenement in a secluded area in the tea garden to fetch water from a tap. When he was returning with a bucket of water, he found himself face to face with an elephant standing under a big tree. No sooner had he stepped back than the elephant's trunk was around his waist and he was up in the air.

Annappan's wife, Rani, broke down as she held his glass-framed photograph. She said, We did not notice the elephant. It was standing under a tree whose leafy branches were hanging all around it. A neighbour who was drying her clothes outside her house shouted that she had heard an elephant trumpet. My husband could not talk. He could not say anything about what happened. Annappan died before he could be taken to hospital.

It is not only elephants but also leopards that have been causing mayhem in the Valparai plateau.

A. Nadira, Rani's neighbour, said, Leopards give us so much trouble. We are not able to rear hens, goats or cows. Annappan's sister Panchalai recalled that her grandnephew had told his mother when they were standing in the tea garden that he had sensed something. They found that it was a leopard. It ran away when they made a lot of noise.

If you want elephants, leopards and tigers to be here, send us out of this place. Or if you want us to be here, send out the elephants, the gaurs, the leopards and the tigers, said Raja, Annappan's brother.

At Periya Thadagam village in the Thadagam valley, U. Rangasamy considers himself lucky to be alive. He walks with a limp after he suffered multiple fractures in his right ankle when he fell while running away from an elephant a few months ago. He was on his way to his field around 8-15 p.m. to guard the crops and had gone past a temple when he saw an elephant in front of him. I shone the torch on it. It chased me, he said. As he sprinted and vaulted the temple's compound wall, he fell on a slab and fractured his ankle. Two years earlier, Rangasamy's sister's husband was dismembered by an elephant herd in a temple on the hill slope a few hundred metres away from the place where Rangasamy had his encounter.

When S. Prakash, a brick kiln owner at Periya Thadagam, and Rangasamy showed this correspondent and the photographer the destruction wrought by elephants in the nearby fields, it did not take long to realise the enormity of the human-elephant conflict (HEC) in the area. Elephants had eaten big swathes of the pea (thatta payir) crop, and dung lay everywhere. A few months earlier, elephants had smashed the solar-powered electrified fence at the foot of the hill. They had entered the fields and feasted on sorghum, maize and pea. It is only in the past five years that the raids on fields by elephant herds have increased, Prakash said. What attracts them to the Thadagam valley, besides the crop, is the pith inside the palmyra stem used as firewood in the brick kilns. Elephants love eating that gooey pith, said Prakash, who is also a wildlife enthusiast.

The Frontline team met C. Sivagnanam, Assistant Conservator of Forests, Forest Protection Squad, Tamil Nadu Forest Department, and his team distributing handbills to people on how to protect the forests. Asked why elephants increasingly entered farmland, brick kilns and tea estates and attacked human beings, Sivagnanam gave a simple reply: We have started living in their territory.

Testimony to this is the 20-odd institutions that have come up in the foothills of the Western Ghats in Coimbatore district directly in the migratory path of the elephants. These institutions include the Amirtha Vishwa Vidyapeeth University (364 hectares) at Ettimadai village in the Boluvampatti range, the Karunya University (283 ha) surrounded by the Western Ghats on three sides, the Isha Yoga Centre at Velliangiri Hills, the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University's Forest College and Research Institute (200 ha) on reserved forest at the foot of the Nilgiri Hills on Kotagiri Road, the Karl Kubel Institute for Development Education, the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History near Anakatty, the CRPF's Central Training College-II at Sanjeevi Hills, the Sachidananda Jothi Niketan Matriculation School near Mettupalayam, the Chinmaya International Residential School at Sirumugai, the Indus College of Engineering, the V.L.B. Janaki Ammal College of Engineering and Technology, and the ACC Madhukarai Cement Works. All of them have been built on patta land right on the elephants' migratory corridor.

A HERD THAT entered a ravine along a check dam at Kanuvai near Coimbatore, close to the Thadagam valley, which is an active elephant corridor. Constructions, mainly brick kilns, that have come up on this corridor force the elephants to find other routes during their migration. This herd eventually moved to the nearby reserve forest.-M. PERIASAMY

Also in the active migratory corridor in the Thadagam valley are 190 brick kilns.

The HEC is a pan-India phenomenon now. On June 9, two elephants strayed into Mysore city in Karnataka and got separated as the confused younger tusker ran helter-skelter with hundreds of people running after it. The tusker mauled a cow and trampled to death a guard at an ATM kiosk before it, along with its companion, was calmed down with tranquillisers.

On June 23, a wild elephant attacked fatally a person at Moongilmadai in Alanthurai village in the Boluvampatti forest range in Coimbatore district. On May 18, a leopard mauled to death a three-year-old girl, Janani, in Thaimudi village in Valparai taluk.

TWO TUSKERS THAT were fatally hit by a train between Podanur and Madhukarai near Coimbatore in 2008. This stretch forms part of a number of elephant corridors in the Palakkad gap near Walayar, and about 15 elephants died here between 2000 and 2010. When the tracks were relaid, they became virtual death traps for migrating herds. The tracks are placed at a level much lower than the rest of the ground and clambering up to escape a train is not easy.-K. ANANTHAN

Indeed, the man-animal conflict is on the rise, be it in Coimbatore, Nilgiris, Krishnagiri and Dharmapuri districts in Tamil Nadu, Hassan district in Karnataka, Chittoor district in Andhra Pradesh, Palakkad district in Kerala or in places in Jharkhand, West Bengal and Assam.

Leopards have entered Karad town in Maharashtra and even bungalows on the outskirts of Mumbai, including one belonging to the actor Hema Malini.

Plantations and pain

Until about 150 years ago, the 220 square kilometre Valparai plateau was covered with thick rainforests that were home to hundreds of elephants. British planters converted 72 per cent of the area into tea gardens and coffee plantations. Consequently, the Valparai elephants lost their home ranges. But it is in the last 15 years that the conflict has become a formidable issue. In the Coimbatore Forest Division (CFD), which is distinct from Coimbatore district, 66 persons have died in elephant attacks between 2001 and 2011. Elephants enter villages in this area at eight different places a day. Within the tea estates in Valparai itself, elephants have attacked and killed 36 people since 1994.

M. Ananda Kumar, Wildlife Scientist, Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF), Mysore, said, We investigated each of the 36 deaths. Surprisingly, we found that 72 per cent of them occurred on the roads within the tea estates. Ninety-nine per cent of the fatalities occurred within the mock-charge distance of the elephants. In other words, the victims did not keep a safe distance from the elephants. They could not sight the elephants standing on the roads.

Elephants are such amazing animals that although they are huge in size, if they stand next to a small bush it will be difficult to make them out, said Ananda Kumar. They have an uncanny ability to stand rock still. It will be difficult to distinguish a rock from an elephant in torchlight. Only after one gets close can one realise it is an elephant.

A FEMALE ELEPHANT comes charging on Moyar Road in the Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary. A file picture.-K. ANANTHAN

Ananda Kumar, who has studied the human-elephant conflict in the Valparai plateau for the past 10 years, said: However, when the elephants see human beings, they give enough warnings. They stretch their ears. They kick the mud and make a rumbling noise in their stomach. They are saying, Hey, I am here. Do not come close to me.' But people ignore these signals. The mock-charge by an elephant involves taking several steps forward and then going back. If people are within the mock-charge distance, they will be killed. There will not be much time to escape from close encounters.

V. Thirunavukarasu, District Forest Officer, Coimbatore, said people should keep a safe distance from elephants. A simple push by an elephant with its trunk is enough to puncture the liver or kidneys, which can lead to internal bleeding and death. In most of the cases, it is a defence mechanism, said Thirunavukarasu, who belongs to the Indian Forest Service (IFS). Besides, the elephants feel insecure when they have calves with them.

A HERD MIGRATING to distant forest patches stranded in a tea estate in the Valparai plateau. When they are forced to remain there for long hours because of human activity, they usually make merry in the garden and then raid nearby ration shops, noon-meal centres or homes for food.-M. ANANDA KUMAR/NCF

In Chinma's case, she went too close to the elephant and it just pushed her with its trunk. The elephant did not chase her or trample her to death as news reports said.

In an incident on November 11, 2010, a 35-year-old woman was trampled to death by an elephant near Therkupalayam village in Coimbatore district. As she came out of her home, she saw an elephant standing right there. A barking dog irritated the elephant and it pushed her and, when she fell down, crushed her head. That is very rare, the DFO said.

A herd camping in a swamp in a tea garden in the plateau. Establishing connectivity between forest patches along the swamps in the tea gardens can facilitate elephant movement and reduce man-animal conflict.-M. ANANDA KUMAR/NCF

In Coimbatore district, said Thirunavukarasu, about 58 villages have been affected by the problem. The issue is the corridor. Elephants are migratory animals, not territorial like tigers. When they find that their migratory corridors are blocked, they have two options. They can either go back to the forests after climbing the steep slope of the Western Ghats or take a circuitous route around the periphery of the forests.

C.R. Jayaprakash, executive committee member, Nilgiri Wildlife and Environment Association, Udhagamandalam, said elephants, instead of taking a U-turn on the periphery of the Western Ghats, move in a straight line through the institutions on their path. Since these institutions have erected powerful solar-powered electric fences, the elephants take an alternative route that is through fields and villages. The elephants love the sorghum, maize and peas crops as also the coconut plantations, mango groves and jackfruit trees. They enter the farmland around 9 p.m., have a king's meal until 4 a.m. and go back into the forests at dawn. They take rest during the day and return for the raid the next evening, said Jayaprakash, who is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication at PSG College of Arts and Science, Coimbatore.

A FORMER EMPLOYEE of a tea estate owned by Tamil Nadu Tea Plantation Corporation Limited, or TANTEA, shows the kitchen of a tenement damaged by a herd that came looking for rice, salt and dhal, on March 6. Tea estates have reported an increase in incidents of elephants attacking ration shops, noon-meal centres and homes.-K. ANANTHAN

Two different situations exist in the Valparai plateau and the Coimbatore Forest Division.

The Valparai plateau is situated in the Anamalai Hills of the Western Ghats and is surrounded by the Anamalai Tiger Reserve, the Eravikulam National Park, the Parambikulam Wildlife Sanctuary and the Vazhachal Reserved Forests. The altitude on the plateau ranges from 900 metres to 1,450 metres above mean sea level. The Anamalai-Parambikulam Elephant Reserve is home to about 1,000 elephants.

ELEPHANT-PROOF TRENCHES dug on the edge of the forest in the Sathyamangalam division in Erode district. District Forest Officer V. Thirunavukarasu says the trenches reflect "traditional wisdom" and adds that they have "proved to be effective" in deterring elephants from entering farmlands or villages.-M GOVARTHAN

In their paper entitled Asian elephant Elephas maximus habitat use and ranging in fragmented rainforest and plantations in the Anamalai Hills, India, published in the journal Tropical Conservation Science, Volume 3 (2), 2010, Ananda Kumar, Divya Mudappa and T.R. Shankar Raman, all belonging to the NCF, point out that the Valparai plateau is dominated by tea, coffee and eucalyptus plantations, interspersed with fragments of rainforests, riparian vegetation, swamps and settlements.

The paper says there are nearly 40 rainforest fragments ranging in size from 0.3 ha to 100 ha dispersed across the plateau on private land. Eucalyptus plantations are raised in tea estates as fuel clearings to meet the energy requirements of tea estates. Riparian vegetation is restricted to a number of small and large rivers traversing the plateau. About one lakh people live in scattered settlements in the Valparai plantation landscape. Since the establishment of the tea estates, forest patches within the plantations are the only refuge for elephants because tea estates are open areas. The plateau itself undulates gently, enabling elephant herds to move from one place to another. However, elephants are good mountain climbers. The British planters, ingenuously, used the elephant paths over the mountains to lay roads.

A TRAINED ELEPHANT (right), locally called 'kumki', engages with a wild elephant that entered a sugarcane field at Nagaranai near Sathyamangalam in December 2010. The Tamil Nadu Forest Department uses kumkis to drive away wild elephants from human settlements. The department plans to set up a camp for kumkis near Coimbatore so that they are available quickly to tackle their wild cousins.-K. ANANTHAN

During their year-long study of elephant movement in the Valparai plateau, Ananda Kumar, Divya Mudappa and Shankar Raman realised that there were three herds and that they spent eight to 10 months in a year in the tea plantations.

They had lost their home ranges to tea plantations. So they had to stay in the tea estates. Elephants show a lot of fidelity to their home ranges, Ananda Kumar said. There were also inter-herd pressures. They could not enter the home range of another herd. The authors followed the movements of two herds within the estates. Elephants do not feed on tea leaves but gorge on the grass in the swamps within the plantations. (When the rainforests were converted into tea estates, the nullahs flowing through the forests became swamps).

Most of the conflicts and deaths occurred in the centre of the plateau where there were no forests. A critical area is the remote TANTEA estate. The Periakallaru river runs through it, dividing it into Ryan and Lawson Divisions. All the nine deaths that occurred in the TANTEA estate took place in Ryan Division, and the encounters happened during the dry season from October to March. This is the season when festivals take place and people are on the roads often. Encounters took place because there were no bus facilities and estate workers had to walk about 5 km to reach home. Many residential colonies in Ryan Division have no toilets and people have to relieve themselves in the open.

Although there are 32 tribal settlements within the Anamalai Tiger Reserve, not a single death of a tribal person in an encounter with an elephant has been reported from there. The tribal people know how to behave with elephants. They do not disturb them. They do not burst crackers, Ananda Kumar said.

Interestingly, elephants target ration shops and noon-meal centres because they look for the rice, dhal and salt stored there. What has aggravated the situation is that the ration shops and noon-meal centres are situated among workers' tenements. On March 6, the day an elephant killed Annappan, a herd attacked a ration shop situated in the tenements nearby.

Kumkis escorting the sufficiently subdued wild elephant back into the forest.-K. ANANTHAN

Ananda Kumar suggested that establishing connectivity from one forest patch to another along the swamps in the tea estates would facilitate the movement of elephants and result in fewer encounters. The tea companies need to show interest in this because they are the stakeholders in this area. Once you have a tree-line along these nullahs/swamps, it will improve the water flow, which is good for tea, and elephants can move. It will also help the lion-tailed macaques, which now live in the isolated forest patches where a lot of inbreeding takes place.

In the Coimbatore Forest Division, HECs occur in four U-shaped valleys that lie in the western part of Coimbatore, adjoining the Western Ghats. These valleys are the Boluvampatti range, which includes Thondamuthur; Marudamalai; Thadagam; and Palamalai. In all these valleys, an assortment of deemed universities, engineering colleges, holiday resorts and housing colonies have come up on the elephants' migratory routes. When they enter the villages, they find instant food, especially in the Thadagam valley, in the form of bananas, sugarcane, maize and sorghum, said Jayaprakash. At least 40 per cent of the land that lies on the western side of the Mettupalayam area has been affected by the elephants' raids on crops. It means an important agricultural belt is lost. This has led to sociological problems. Nobody is sure whether he can harvest his crop, he added.

A PART OF the herd of 13 elephants that entered a banana plantation at Somayanur in the Thadagam valley on January 29. This area is known for its frequent human-elephant conflicts. Forest officials and the police had a tough time controlling the crowd that gathered and ensuring for the animals safe passage into the forest.-K. ANANTHAN

According to Thirunavukarasu, the CFD is part of an important elephant corridor. On an average, 200 to 300 elephants use this territory every day for migration. An elephant feeds on 250 to 300 kg of food and drinks 200 litres of water a day. So they migrate from one place to another in search of food and water, enough of which are not available in one place, and for breeding.

The elephant population in the CFD has shot up in the past 10 years as a result of the CFD's anti-poaching measures. If the male-female ratio during forest brigand and elephant poacher Veerappan's era was 1:40, it now stands at 1:12, indicating an increase in their population. Apart from engineering colleges blocking their migratory corridors, real estate has boomed on the periphery of the Western Ghats. Everybody wants to own a home on the periphery because they can have a nice view of the hills. People say that the elephants are entering the city. But I would say that the city has encroached their territory, said Thirunavukarasu.

COIMBATORE DISTRICT FOREST Officer V. Thirunavukarasu. He says human-elephant conflict has affected 58 villages in the district and believes that the reason is the blocking of the corridor.-K. ANANTHAN

Two important places, which are in the elephants' migratory path and therefore facing a problem, are the Thadagam valley and the Naickenpalayam area. The Thadagam valley used to grow sorghum and maize, fodder for the cattle until 15 years ago. But it is home to 190 brick kilns now and they stand right in the middle of the main migratory corridor of the elephants, said Thirunavukarasu.

The brick kilns came up because the soil from the nearby hill slopes got washed down to the valley and piled up to a height of several metres. Affected by elephants' crop raids, big farmers took to making bricks. They dug up the soil for making bricks and used palmyra trunks for baking the bricks. The palmyra trunks are split (to be fed into the oven) and the pith inside them is thrown aside. This ferments and attracts elephants. It is a wonderful food item for them, the DFO said.

M. ANANDA KUMAR, wildlife scientist with the Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore. He holds the LED lantern that he and his team developed as part of a GSM-based elephant warning system. It is installed on a high mast and switched on by people in the neighbourhood by dialling the number of the SIM card inside it.-K. ANANTHAN

The labourers in the kilns are from Vellore, Pudukottai, Ramanathapuram and Virudhunagar districts and live in tenements near the kilns. Their colonies have no toilets and they are forced to go outdoors to relieve themselves at night. When they encounter elephants, they do not know how to deal with them. They throw stones at them, inviting trouble. Besides, they do not keep a safe distance from them.

There are 20 temples in the forests in the migratory path. They include the Marudamalai temple, the Anuvavi Subramania Swamy temple, the Palamalai temple and the temple in the Velliangiri hill. They attract several lakh pilgrims round the year. The Palamalai and Velliangiri temples are situated in the active migratory corridor. Since the Marudamalai temple blocks their path, the elephants go round the Bharathiyar University campus now. All this has an impact on the elephants. The issue is a complex one.

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