Kerala tragedy: Why India needs to tackle the elephant in the room

As elephants cause damage to crops, experts say installation of warning systems must be ramped up

Wayanad district collector, Adeela Abdullah, said the final notification will be issued after several rounds of discussions and revisions. Representational image.

The World Environment Day on June 5 is not a cause of celebration anymore, at least in India. The country has been witnessing the clearing of several environmental projects through video conferencing, the diversion of forest lands and the allowing of industries to use sanctuaries—all these put the environment in peril.

Amidst these actions has come the death of an elephant in Palakkad district of Kerala after it had eaten a pineapple laden with firecrackers. The incident had reminded us once again that the Environment Day just remained on the paper and people prefer economy over environment. Incidentally, this year’s theme for the Day is ‘Celebrate Biodiversity’.

The animal-human conflict existed even in primordial times. However, developmental activities like construction of roads and dams, which require the destruction of forests and farmlands, have increased the conflict in the past three decades.

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These activities had led to the shrinking of forest cover, which, in turn, led to the reduction in vegetation and prey density. So, the pressure on wild animals to enter human habitats has intensified and that’s when the conflicts happen.

Related News: Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan slams hate campaign after elephant death

Currently, India has 29 elephant reserves spread over an area of 65,000 sq km. The country has more than 27,300 elephants in the wild. According to data provided by the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change in the Parliament in 2019, lives of 1,713 humans and 373 elephants had been lost between 2015 and 2018 due to elephant-human conflict.

Though the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 protects elephants, that come under the Species I category, the rampant killing of tuskers has not stopped. Instead, it has increased.

Elephants in captivity have been facing slow deaths due to cruelties like chaining their legs and making them stand in the scorching heat during temple festivals. On the other hand, elephants in the wild have been facing a risk of immediate death due to intrusions like railway tracks, snare traps in agricultural fields and poaching.

Why are elephants killed?

Humans kill elephants for two reasons—for their ivory and to save crops.

In 2019, the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau, in a reply to an RTI filed by Noida-based lawyer Ranjan Tomar, said 429 elephants had been poached and 642 poachers were arrested in the past 10 years. Shockingly, Kerala topped the list with the poaching of 136 elephants, followed by West Bengal (48), Karnataka (46), Tamil Nadu (44) and Odisha (41).

However, experts say that while the law punishes poachers, it is difficult to trace perpetrators who use snare traps and poison-laden items in agricultural fields to kill the animals.

But the recent incident is not a case of poaching. Some people in Mannarkkad forest range in Palakkad district use fruits laden with firecrackers to ward off animals. The elephant ate one of the fruits and later died.

“In Mannarkad forest division, a lot of people cultivate Ganja with the help of political parties,” alleged VK Venkitachalam, the founder of Heritage Animal Task Force, based in Kerala. “Since the region is a good source of water, elephants used to come there. They accidentally eat the fruits laden with firecrackers that are meant to ward off wild boars.”

From 1998, at least 25 elephants had died in the region in the same fashion, after having heavy injuries on their mouths. But no action has been taken yet” he alleged. In these cases, forest officials usually file an FIR against unknown offenders. Within three months, the case will come to a close, he claimed.

Some people began a hate campaign over the elephant’s death. “Many misreported that the incident had happened in Malappuram. But the elephant was injured at Mannarkad forest range, which is located in the Silent Valley in Palakkad district. Since Malappuram has a considerable Muslim population, the Centre has taken this issue seriously,” he Venkitachalam.

Can crop raiding be prevented?

“If a male elephant was killed, we could conclude that it had been poached for its tusks,” said B Ramakrishnan, a member of the IUCN Asian Elephant Specialists Group.

“But the elephant that died in Kerala was a female. Usually, people use crackers to shoo away animals. We don’t know whether the elephant was a habitual crop raider. If it was, then people must have done it deliberately. Then it could be a retaliatory killing. But even then, it should be treated as a wildlife crime,” he said.

In many cases, elephants come to human habitats because humans encroach upon their corridors. However, elephant corridors are preserved well in southern states, when compared with northern states, he said. “It’s not like that elephants damage crops when their corridor is encroached and transformed into agricultural fields. If they find attractive crops in the adjoining areas of their corridors, they come there” said Ramakrishnan.

In order to prevent crop raiding, most farmers in Tamil Nadu use electric fences or dig trenches, so that elephants cannot enter fields. These methods had resulted in the deaths of elephants. After environmental activists began filing cases, such activities have come down. Of late, farmers have started to use natural deterrents like honey bees.

“But using bees have not provided desired results because bees used in India are not as aggressive as those used in African countries,” said Ramakrishnan, who is also an assistant professor, Department of Wildlife Biology, Government Arts and Science College, Ooty.

“We are using Italian honey bees (Apis Mellifera). If we need aggressive ones, then we must import bees from Africa. But the introducing of alien species in India will have an (negative) impact over endemic species here” he said.

According to Ramakrishnan, after the implementation of the Project Elephant in 1992, the poaching of elephants has come down. This has helped in maintaining a balance between male and female elephant population.

“In the 80s, the sex ratio among elephants was 1:4—that is one male elephant for four female elephants. But now, the ratio stands at 1:7. Tamil Nadu is doing a good job in elephant conservation,” he said. Unless, if we have early warning systems, it is difficult to prevent crop raiding by the elephants, added Ramakrishnan.

Successful warning systems

But early warning systems are in place only at two places—Valparai (Tamil Nadu) and Hassan (Karnataka). Warning system alerts people through an SMS, whenever there is an elephant activity in the vicinity. It was developed by elephant expert Dr M Ananda Kumar, a scientist at the Nature Conservation Foundation. He has received the prestigious Whitley Award, commonly known as ‘Green Oscars’.

The elephant-human conflict has two impacts—property loss and human loss. “In Valparai, we set up this system in 2013 and, for the past seven years, we haven’t come across any human loss due to elephants. In Hassan, we introduced it in October 2017 and, for the past 31 months, there is no human loss,” said Kumar.

“But the property loss cannot be brought down to zero. If the passages of elephants are obstructed, there will be damage of properties,” he said.

“In many states, forest departments distribute compensation to the farmers. Forest departments in many states make dead investments like installation of electric fences that will turn obsolete over the period,” he said. “Instead, a separate fund should be created within the department using the money.”

“Speedy distribution of compensation matters much. So, divisional forest officers must be authorised to sign cheques. Besides, the responsibility of giving compensation should be shared by agriculture departments. Because, the responsibility of forest departments is to save the forests and wildlife, not agricultural fields,” he added.

In mitigating the elephant-human conflict, the government should not depend only on early warning systems, he said.

“The problem in Coimbatore may not similar in Jharkhand. The landscape, the behaviour of elephants, the land use pattern, the people who use lands are all different. Then why should the solution alone be common to all states? We usually try to find a solution and then approach the problem. But it should be done in reverse,” added Kumar.

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