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Terror in the dark

The man-animal conflict is a major conservation issue, especially when forested land is scarce and is a fiercely contested resource. PAVITHRA SANKARAN examines one such example, where beleaguered elephants in southern Tamil Nadu have learnt to raid storehouses in lieu of paddy and sugarcane fields.


Head-on collision ... with man.

Malar woke up with a start — the low rumbling sounds were unmistakable. She heard the heavy footsteps and the occasional twig snapping. Malar dreaded the moment — the elephants were coming.

Terrified for her family, she woke up her husband and three sons. Other families in the tea-estate labour quarters were awake too. For four hours, Malar's family huddled together in the attic above the kitchen. They sat quietly, listening to the herd outside uproot the banana plants and help themselves to the yet-unripe fruits of the guava trees.

Finally, at daybreak, the herd left. Cautiously, Malar's husband opened the kitchen door. A large crack ran down their front wall. The front door hung from its hinges at an acute angle.

* * *

"Yaanai yenga nikithu? (Where are the elephants?")

IT'S a question you'll hear being asked more than once a day in Valparai. It is a conversation-opener, a sure way to get people talking, in teashops, at the vadai stalls by the roadside, in Valparai's internet browsing centres.

Situated on a plateau in the Anamalai (literally, "Elephant Hills") hill range in Tamil Nadu's Coimbatore district, and surrounded by the Indira Gandhi Wildlife Sanctuary (Tamil Nadu) and other wildlife reserves in Kerala, Valparai lies in the path of elephant herds that move from one sanctuary to another in search of food. The plateau with its gently undulating slopes is the ideal route for elephants, for walking through the sanctuary would mean having to negotiate reservoirs, rocky cliffs and steep mountains.

The 220 square kilometres that make up the Valparai plateau include many large tea estates, a few coffee plantations, some (abandoned) cardamom cultivations, many rainforest fragments and Valparai town. Most of the land is owned by the companies that run the estates. More than 1,05,000 people live on the plateau, most of them making a living as wage labourers for the tea and coffee plantations.

The area forms a part of the Anamalai-Parambikulam Elephant Reserve believed to have a population of around 1,500 wild Asian elephants. Elephant herds walk through the plateau regularly. En route, they stop at school kitchens and ration stores, breaking walls and doors, looking for sacks of rice, dal, and salt. An estate manager claimed he had suffered losses of nearly a lakh of rupees from elephant damage in one year.

Between April 2002 and January 2003, 17 herds entered the plateau. "Every one of them visited a labour line, a cooperative store, or a school," says Shankar Raman, a wildlife biologist studying elephants here, "The damage varies in each case — from the loss of 10 medhu vadais to buildings being knocked down, tea nurseries trampled, or stores raided."

Shankar Raman and his colleagues, Divya Mudappa, Ananda Kumar and M.D. Madhusudan, are a team of wildlife scientists from the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF), Mysore, who began monitoring human-elephant conflict here in early 2002.

During their study, the NCF team tracked every herd that entered the plateau, noting the age-sex composition, mapping its routes, and recording and estimating each incident of damage. Prior to this study, although it was known that elephants used the area, there was little reliable information on when and where these movements or conflicts occurred. As data was gathered and analysed, some patterns began to emerge.

"To understand the reasons for the conflict here, you have to know the history of this place," says Divya Mudappa. "Some of the earliest accounts by British officers, who came here to survey the land and establish plantations, speak of large herds of elephants which inhabited the forests." She proceeds to read from The Anamallais, a book published in the mid-1940s by C.R.T. Congreve, a British officer who lived and worked in these hills.

"It is very difficult, if not impossible, for people at the present time to visualise what this district was like when we first came to it in 1897. There were miles and miles of evergreen forest, with a few main paths running through it made by the huge herds of elephants which roamed there ... "

Congreve's book is a wonderfully detailed account of his years in the Anamalais. Much of the information and history of these areas when they began to be "opened up" comes from accounts such as these, written by the first British estate managers and officials.

Since their time, the landscape of the Anamalais, and that of the Valparai plateau in particular, has changed dramatically. Rivers have been diverted, reservoirs built, tar roads laid. But most of all, huge plantations of tea, coffee, and cardamom have emerged and taken over what was once prime elephant habitat.

Cardamom and coffee plantations began to appear in the Anamalais in the late 1890s. The British Government of that time was keen on the "opening up" of many of the hilly areas of the southern Western Ghats. For this purpose, the Anamalais were surveyed for the first time in the 1850s. Reports written following these surveys, recommended that the area was "ideal" for cultivation, and should therefore be auctioned away. Congreve writes, "The Government agreed to the sale of these lands, which they termed `waste', and they were put up for auction."

"The conversion of habitat — from forested land to plantations and even from the well-wooded shade cardamom and coffee cultivation to the virtually shade-less tea plantation, decreases availability of forage. Even now, continuous degradation, felling and woodcutting are seriously undermining what little is available for the animals," says Shankar Raman. Another factor that could cause more problems for the elephants, and thus the people, is the ongoing conversion of some coffee estates to tea. Coffee is undoubtedly a friendlier habitat for wildlife than tea. "Tea is being extended up to the border of the sanctuary and the very edge of streams often used by elephants. This will further reduce their resources and space," he observes.

"One herd we tracked took 10 days to walk from the south west of the plateau to the east, but there was nothing for them to eat on the way — only Guatemala grass grown on some estates, and a little natural fodder like Ochlandra bamboo and Clerodendrum growing in a few Eucalyptus fuel patches and forest fragments," adds Mudappa. "Over time, they've learned to eat whatever they find."

"The matriarchs that lead the herds today have seen the landscape change," she continues. "The Aliyar reservoir, the dam, new roads, have all been built in the last 50 years — within the memory of most of the older animals. In fact many of the roads here were built on regular elephant trails. The routes these herds have travelled for so many years have changed suddenly... we cannot expect them to adjust and adapt within just two generations," she explains.

The earliest known reports of damage by elephants in this area are more than 60 years old. Congreve tells of incidents of elephants raiding and knocking down storehouses — "Camps, with their corrugated iron roofings, were constantly being pulled down, and the roofing smashed to bits ... " But significantly, as he notes, "These elephants did very little damage to cultivation." At the time when Congreve wrote, natural fodder was still available on the plateau for the animals.

Many of the places, which elephants have raided since the team started its study, have not been touched before, at least in the memory of people residing here. The team says the reasons for these new raids could include scarcity of water and food. The last year saw this region receive less than half the normal rainfall. With essential resources at a nadir, the Valparai plateau with its perennial streams obviously attracts elephant herds.

Are these indications of the conflict intensifying?

"Not really," says Ananda Kumar, "People often tell us that there are more elephants now than there were a few years ago, but we know that isn't true. They also say that the elephants began raiding schools and stores only four or five years ago, but again we know from reports that the problem has existed for several years now ... it's the trauma of repeated encounters that influences people's perception of the conflict ... it is a terrifying experience to know that wild elephants are standing outside your door." Adds Mudappa, "Increased coverage in newspapers and television also contributes to the feeling that these incidents occur more often than they really do."

Often the first reaction to elephant presence is to set off crackers in an attempt to scare them away. The team says this happens even if the herd is only grazing quietly in a nearby eucalyptus clearing. It usually results in the animals heading away, only to be chased back again by another group of people, and so on. "It must be quite an ordeal for them," says Ananda Kumar. This sort of panicky reaction to elephant presence could make matters worse — the herd that did the most damage during the study period was one that was repeatedly scared away in the direction opposite to where it was headed. "If people leave the elephants alone, or at least try not to provoke and scare them, many of these raids might not have occurred at all," Mudappa adds.

As there only seem to be victims on both sides in this conflict, where does the solution lie? "There is no single answer," says Ananda Kumar. The team has suggested experimenting with a combination of strategies. "It must begin with making the local people aware of where the problem really lies," they say. They have also held meetings with estate managers and the Forest Department officials, and have suggested a series of measures including digging trenches and putting electric fences around susceptible labour quarters, establishing a safe central depot to store rice and grain, and most importantly, the need to restore the few patches of forest that dot the hills to provide refuge and corridors for elephants and other wildlife.

Protecting and restoring these forest fragments will mean more natural cover and fodder for the animals — and thus, the main reason for conflict might be minimised, if not eliminated. The possibility of establishing corridors of vegetation-connectivity between the various fragments has yet to be explored. These pockets of natural vegetation also provide cover for the animals, and restoring them might encourage the animals to use them more often.

While efforts continue from the side of both the researchers and the authorities to resolve the conflict, houses continue to be raided, and animals continue to be harassed.

Perhaps what is most essential is not an elephant proof trench or even electric fences, but a small change in lifestyle and a slight change in attitude. A willingness to tuck in the elbow and share what space and resources are available, with our pachyderm counterparts.

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