In what is being described as the first such conservation step in Asia, more than 25 acres of land has been donated to the Karnataka forest department so that wild elephants can move freely through a dedicated corridor between two reserve forests.

Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) transferred the ownership of land in Karnataka’s Chamarajanagar district to the forest department on Christmas eve to start reforestation work.

The land falls under the Kollegal (Edayarhalli-Doddasampige) corridor (about 1 km wide and 8 km long) that connects the Kollegal forest with Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple Wildlife Sanctuary in the Western Ghats, some 140 km from Bangalore. Hundreds of elephants pass through this corridor every year in their annual migration route.

Environmentalists say the region is part of the 12,000 sq km of forests in the Nilgiri and Western Ghats, home to tiger reserves and wildlife sanctuaries. It also houses Asia’s single largest wild elephant population of about 6,000.

“The acquired land will now get protected status. The process is under way to include it under the Biligiri sanctuary,” said deputy conservator of forests Biswajit Misra, who signed the transfer deed with WTI on behalf of the Karnataka forest department.

Seventeen villagers had owned the land. WTI purchased it from them in 2007 with support of US-based NGO International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).

“People used to grow ragi, maize, sorghum and other cash crops on the land. But this had led to man-animal conflict, as elephants eat the crops,” WTI field officer C told IANS.

“In addition, there was a danger of the land being used for commercial projects that are environmentally unsuitable and could affect elephants’ movement,” he said.

The deal will help initiate conservation steps and reduce threats to wildlife by limiting human activities in the area. The NGO claims it to be the first such conservation step taken in Asia.

“Reforestation work is being carried out to restore the area. Trenches that were dug to stop elephants from entering the fields and for marking government and private land are being filled. This will facilitate free movement of elephants,” Misra told IANS.

Kollegal is one of the 88 elephant corridors identified by WTI and IFAW for protection after a nationwide survey. The study was published in a book titled “Right of Passage: Elephant corridors of India”.

The Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve houses some of the oldest wildlife sanctuaries in the country such as the Bandipur Tiger Reserve, the Mudumalai wildlife sanctuary and the Nagarhole tiger reserve.

The IFAW-WTI National Elephant Corridor project is supported by the IUCN-Netherlands, US Fish and Wildlife Service and World Land Trust.

Currently details of three other corridors Tirunelli-Kudrakote in Kerala, Kaziranga-Karbi Anglong in Assam and Siju-Rewak in Meghalaya are being worked out for acquisition as part of the project.