Elephant translocation Arikkomban
The Sri Lankan study concludes that translocation causes wider propagation and intensification of human-elephant conflict, and increased elephant mortality, thus defeating both conflict mitigation and elephant conservation goals | iStock image

Elephant translocation can trip conflict mitigation, conservation goals

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The increasing human-elephant conflict in the Nilgiris, a border region between Tamil Nadu and Kerala, has again sparked a debate on the changing approaches of the two states in handling the issue of rogue elephants.

The Kerala government’s approach on dealing with conflict animals had to change drastically thanks to the intervention of the high court on a petition by animal rights activists against the “capturing and enslaving” of elephants.

The difference in approach was evident up until last month, with Tamil Nadu preferring translocation of conflict animals while the Kerala forest department chose capturing and training of rouge elephants.

A couple of months ago, forest officials in Kerala captured a tusk-less male elephant, PM2 (Panthalur Makhana 2), and sent it to the Muthanga camp for kumki training. This elephant was earlier captured in Tamil Nadu and translocated to the Muthumala sanctuary. PM 2 had been unleashing terror on human habitats, killing a couple of people before being captured and translocated by the Tamil Nadu forest department.

Also read: Arikomban now creates havoc in Tamil Nadu; has forest officers on their toes

But it took only days for him to come back to human habitat, this time to Wayanad in Kerala. The Kerala forest department promptly darted it and took it into the fold of kumki elephants.

Palakkad Tusker 7

A couple of weeks later, another elephant — the Palakkad Tusker 7, later renamed as Dhoni after the place he was captured in — was also darted and detained in the Muthanga kumki training facility, prompting animal lovers of Kerala to move the high court. This was when another tusker, Arikkomban, began to cause havoc in Idukki district.

The Kerala government had to abort its operation to capture the elephant due to the court’s intervention which appointed a special expert committee to decide the fate of the animal. The jumbo was darted and relocated to the Parambikulam tiger reserve as the committee favoured its translocation.

However, after a month, the animal returned to human habitat, this time in Tamil Nadu, with the state’s roles reversed. If PM 2 was translocated by the Tamil Nadu forest department, this animal was radio-collared and released by Kerala.

Also read: Rogue tusker Arikomban enters inhabited area in Kerala’s Kumily; officials drive it back to forest

Interestingly, both of the elephants have similar monikers — Arisi Rajah and Arikkomban — both derived from their love for rice. Arikkomban’s ‘antics’ in Cumbum town in Tamil Nadu the other day claimed the life of Pal Raj, a commuter who came in the way when the animal ran amok in the town.

Now, the Tamil Nadu special task force is all set to dart and capture the tusker and the operation is underway.

Translocating elephants

These incidents of human-elephant conflict have triggered another round of discussions on the efficacy of translocating conflict animals.

According to a study conducted by the field team of Wild Life Fund, India, on the translocation of a wild elephant, Vinayagan of Coimbatore, “translocations and their study not only offer the opportunity to resolve human-elephant conflict (HEC) in an acceptable way but also help build the skills and techniques needed for meta-population management where the future of conservation lies”.

On the other hand, Sri Lankan wildlife researchers Prithiviraj Fernando, Peter Leimgruber, Tharaka Prasad, and Jennifer Pastorini in their 2012 study titled Problem-Elephant Translocation: Translocating the Problem and the Elephant? argue that translocation causes intensification and broader propagation of HEC and increased elephant mortality. Hence it defeats both HEC mitigation and elephant conservation goals.

The driver of translocation is public and political pressure. Capturing and translocating an elephant from the vicinity of major HEC incidents may defuse tension and hence be of relevance in particular contexts. However, the study found that even if the original problem was solved by translocation, the same or more likely worse would create at another location.

Also read: Arikomban, Kerala’s rice-loving jumbo walks home, may be brought back to Munnar

This is exactly what’s happening in the case of Arikkomban in Tamil Nadu now. According to the People for Animals, a charitable trust working for animal rights who filed a complaint in the Kerala High Court, Arikkomban is a “homer” and would certainly try returning to the capture site. (Elephants are classified into several categories: homer, wanderer, and settler, according to their responses.)

“Arikkomban has proven that he is a ‘homer elephant’. So, allow him to go home and retain him. That is the only sane decision,” says Sreedevi S Kartha, a trustee of People for Animals.

“Don’t dart”

“Never again should he be tranquillized or darted; he could not tolerate it. It must be a physical and mental ordeal for him to be translocated once more. Permit him to return home. Please do not block him; he knows the way. The Tamil Nadu Forest Department should only ensure the safety of the populace, so let’s make room for him,” Sreedevi S Kartha wrote on Facebook.

According to the Sri Lankan researchers, translocated elephants show varying responses: ‘homers’ return to the capture site, ‘wanderers’ range widely, and ‘settlers’ establish home ranges in new areas soon after release.

The study concludes that translocation causes wider propagation and intensification of human-elephant conflict, and increased elephant mortality, thus defeating both HEC mitigation and elephant conservation goals.

In the interim, translocations should only be undertaken with monitoring through GPS-telemetry and contingency plans to address unintended outcomes. Elephant translocation without either amounts to reckless disregard for the safety and welfare of people and elephants.

Also read: Shooting for film on Arikomban, the rice-loving rogue tusker to begin in October

In the long term, attention needs to be shifted towards preventing the genesis of ‘problem-elephants’. Such a strategy requires eliminating elephant management and crop protection methods that promote elephant aggression and increase HEC, and implementing land-use plans that minimize crop raiding.

At the same time, animal rights advocates in Kerala are hoping that the Bruno bench of the Kerala High Court will positively intervene in the cases of PT 7 and PM 2 as well, as a committee appointed by the court is determining whether these elephants are healthy enough to be released back into the wild.

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