Elephants once majestically walked down the Thadagam Valley during the migratory season. Today, intolerant people and a changing landscape trouble the gentle giants, finds out Akila Kannadasan

If elephants could talk, they would tell us how easy migrating through the Thadagam Valley used to be. They had a clear path; farmers who grew cholam by the mountainside shared their produce with them. They co-existed. But, as Coimbatore developed, harsh changes came about. Brick kilns were set up in Thadagam — today, over 200 of them have come up on agricultural land. Rampant soil mining has also changed the landscape.

Detour and danger

“Thirsty elephants walk into the kilns when there is no water inside forests,” says Abraham Antony, a wildlife enthusiast who regularly visits Thadagam to photograph elephants. This detour from their usual migratory path spells deep trouble for man and animal. When Sreedhar Vijayakrishnan visited Thadagam last year, he was shocked to see some youngsters taunting an elephant. “They were jeering and chasing it. The elephant had to give a mock charge,” he says. A student of M.Sc Wildlife Biology and Conservation, WCS-India Program, he adds that these “atrocities” are a daily “game” for some migrant brick kiln workers.

K. Mohan Raj of Tamil Nadu Green Movement has also seen elephants teased by brick kiln workers. “They throw stones at elephants and hoot. Some people also feed them chips and take photographs. ” Mohan says that the animal does its best to avoid human contact — “It knows man is a disturbance”.

Its not just water that attracts elephants to brick kilns. “Palmyra trees are used as fuel for the kiln. When put out to dry, they give off a smell similar to that of arrack,” explains Mohan. This smell draws elephants — they relish the stems.

For those who come from far off places to work in the brick kilns, seeing an elephant up close is a novelty. Unlike the locals, they are not used to co-existence. As a result, conflicts occur.

Loss of life

According to a report brought out by the Tamil Nadu Green Movement in 2011, 61 people have been killed by elephants in the Coimbatore forest division in the last 10 years. “During the year 2010 alone, 16 human deaths were reported and the sum of about 15 lakhs were paid in way of compensation for more than 300 crop raids,” says the report.

Lack of proper toilet facilities for brick kiln workers is among the reasons for the conflict, says V. Thirunavukkarasu, District Forest Officer. Anything can happen in the dark. A man venturing out could catch a grazing elephant unawares. The animal’s reaction, sometimes, turns fatal.

Thirunavukkarasu feels the issue can be dealt with by involving people. “We have to educate the settlers and make them aware of the dangers of venturing out at night.” He adds that they have advised the kiln workers to replace palmyra trees with some other wood.

Thadagam Valley is an elephant corridor — elephants have been migrating north from the Anuvavi Subramaniyar temple for years. Buildings have come up in this once-pristine environment. “We cannot ask the elephant to change its course,” says Thirunavukkarasu.

Locals have learned to let the animal be. Kuppusamy, who has been running a tea-shop near the temple for decades, downs the shutters before 6 p.m. He opens his shop only at 8 a.m., unlike in the past when he worked from 6.30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Business has dulled, but Kuppusamy doesn’t blame them. “I’m only angry with the people,” he says. “They disturb the elephants.”

P. Dhanendran Chandrashekar and M. Rajendran Muthusamy visit Thadagam at least twice a week to see elephants. They look out for men who trouble the animals and try their best to teach people to live in harmony.

The people of Panapalli, a beautiful mountain village near Anaikatti, call elephants ‘Raja’. Wizened Lingammal goes into the forest alone to graze her goats every day. Not once, in all these years, has she felt threatened by elephants. “When I see Raja, I make way for him. I offer him a saranam and walk away,” she says.

Elephants are never a threat to humans, says a veterinarian who has spent 20 years with them. “They are shy and gentle. We hear of elephants raiding crops, attacking humans…it is human intervention that has changed them. But it’s not too late to understand them.” His solution? “Man should keep away from elephants. It’s enough if we don’t do anything.”