‘Early warning systems and awareness creation important to prevent such fatalities’

Over the weekend, Bangalore’s populated outskirts watched in frenetic disbelief as 13 wild elephants made their meandering way through villages and townships they had never been seen in before. The herd was finally chased back into the Hosur forest range in Tamil Nadu from where they are thought to have entered, but not before four people were killed in the herd’s path in Kolar and Hoskote.

The fatal encounters, attributed to an overzealous crowd unaccustomed to wild elephants in their backyard, was in fact a greater reflection of the failure of the authorities in responding effectively, says Raman Sukumar, Chairman of the Centre for Ecological Sciences and expert on elephant ecology . The four deaths could have been avoided by an early warning, awareness drives and crowd management, he told The Hindu.

As incidents of wildlife entering human habitation is growing, including in urban and peri-urban areas, the Forest Department and the police need to get systems in place to prevent such tragedies. Indeed, wild elephants are increasingly venturing into areas they were not seen in before, Kolar being the latest, he said.

M.D. Madhusudan of Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore, says elephants and other animals known for their adaptability (such as leopards) are becoming increasingly common visitors to areas outside their conventional habitat ranges. Just a year ago, on May 16, 2012, two elephants were spotted on the road at Kumbalgodu, south Bangalore, creating panic among residents. They retreated after damaging part of a compound wall of the Rajarajeshwari College of Engineering and Technology.

And the year before that, on July 8, 2011, a wild elephant charged through Mysore city attacking several people and killing a security guard at an ATM.

“In the case of certain species, it is increasingly difficult to distinguish between ‘natural’ and ‘alien’ habitat,” Dr. Madhusudan said.

Prof. Sukumar said elephants are also known for “exploratory behaviour” and look to expand their range. There are a complex web of push and pull factors that trigger these forays into new areas. “The elephant density has reached saturation, especially in southern Indian forests, and fodder in the form of certain crops attracts them,” he said.

This trend calls for greater preparedness and a quicker response system on the part of the Forest Department, he added.

It was over a fortnight ago that the department, by its own admission, had spotted a group of elephants crossing the Krishnagiri highway and venturing towards Bangalore. This information was not communicated to residents in the vicinity.

However, Deepak Sharma, Chief Wildlife Warden, told The Hindu that the department “did its best” under the circumstances. “There is only so much we can do if people behave badly. Eight people died from elephant attacks in Kolar despite our efforts to create awareness,” he said.