Amid debates of controlling the wild elephant and related problems in Kodagu, the mammoths have been having a free run in the district with many of them making coffee plantations their favourite habitat. The recommendations of the expert committees made from time to time to curb the menace, if not eradicate it, has not helped for either lack of implementation of the recommendations or the dispensations just brushing them aside.

It is estimated that there are more than 60 elephants holed up in the coffee plantations in various parts of Kodagu currently. One of the infested areas is Polibetta and surrounding villages where elephants have been moving around nonchalantly, says Nanda Subbaiah, a progressive coffee planter and the one who has been keeping track of elephant-related developments in Kodagu. The new-born calves have not seen the forests at all since they were staying put in the plantations, he says.

He described an incident where elephants chased away people in broad daylight on the Gattadahalla-Polibetta road in Kodagu a few days ago after the vehicles plying on the roads had stopped, spotting a herd cross over from one plantation to another. He provided the pictures to The Hindu , which were clicked by an officer working with a leading coffee plantation company, who was a witness to the incident. In many plantations, elephants were not able to cross over to another area, thanks to the putting up of solar fencing, Mr. Subbaiah said. At places such as Maldare, near Siddapur, where Mr. Subbaiah lived, deepening of elephant-proof trenches (EPT) up to three metres has prevented the elephants from moving out.

Lack of fodder and drinking water had been pushing the pachyderms out from the forests into human habitations and crop areas. A drought-like situation in the forests had worsened the plight of the animals. That bamboos had dried up in forests made things worse for the elephants. Teak, a monoculture plant, has dominated the forest areas, adding to the woes of the elephants. Besides, elephant numbers have increased in the recent years and there could be at least 60 elephants that have been added to the herd in Kodagu alone, Mr. Subbaiah said.

Many in Kodagu, including Mr. Subbaiah, do not agree with the contention that elephant corridors of the past have been converted into coffee plantations. How could one term the entire 1,003 sq. km. area of coffee belt in Kodagu as elephant corridor, he asks. Of the total geographical area of 4,102 sq. km. in Kodagu, reserve forests and protected forests covered approximately 1,400 sq. km. Coffee and other plantations were private land which would have to be used for livelihood by the people. In fact, coffee had added in equal measure to the cause of environment in Kodagu, whose green cover is put at over 60 per cent, much more than the national average.

Study

A study conducted in 2008 had concluded that elephants have started feeding on ripened coffee berries. It was proved by a team of experts who conducted a study in Kodagu, details of which are contained in the report: ‘Elephants Also Like Coffee: Trends and Drivers of Human-Elephant Conflicts in Coffee Agro-Forestry Landscapes of Kodagu, Western Ghats, India’.

During February and April 2008, the team studied elephants consuming ripened coffee berries by recording 209 dung piles and counting the coffee seed cotyledons within them. The two-seed cotyledons per berry were separated from each other after passing through the elephant’s gut. A cluster on a coffee plant branch usually contains 20-30 coffee berries. The dung piles were classified into three categories according to the number of coffee seed cotyledons present. One to 50 cotyledons per dung pile represented involuntary ingestion of berries and 50 or more cotyledons per dung pile represented voluntary consumption of coffee, the observations concluded. The team comprised P. Bal, Cheryl D. Nath, K.M. Nanaya, C.G. Kushalappa and C. Garcia.

Dung analyses indicated that elephants have selectively included ripened coffee berries in their diet. If this new behaviour spreads through the population, it would compound an already severe human-elephant conflict (HEC) situation, the members had cautioned.

The team did not find any significant differences between age groups, a pointer that adults and juveniles fed on coffee berries. Coffee berries in Kodagu ripened between December and February — Arabica early and Robusta later.

The systematic sampling of 209 dung piles by the team lasted three months and included different age classes and covered 5,600 hectares in more than half of the coffee estates in the study site. The study concluded that the coffee-eating behaviour could be attributed to a segment rather than the entire local population of elephants.

Kodagu district produces two per cent of the world’s coffee under complex, multi-storeyed agro-forestry systems. Coffee estates accounted for 33 per cent of the total area of Kodagu district with other associated crops, including pepper, cardamom and oranges.

Terraced paddy cultivation occurs in valleys of the district and occupy 21 per cent of the total area. According to two different studies, from 1977 to 2007, Kodagu lost nearly 30 per cent of its forest cover, marked by a 100 per cent increase in coffee area. This is touted as one of the main reasons for the increased HEC in the last 10 years.

Holistic approach

A holistic approach is needed to bring down the elephant problem in Kodagu, feels Mr. Subbaiah, who has been the Chairman of the Codagu Planters Association (CPA). Relocation of the elephants, as suggested by the High Court-appointed elephant task force some time ago, would not help since the animals could come back to the same spot any time. On the other hand, capturing the trouble-makers and taming them by keeping them in captivity would serve the purpose, Mr. Subbaiah said.

Coffee growers suffered 15 to 20 per cent production loss every year due to the elephant problem in Kodagu. Small growers who bore the brunt found it difficult to cope with the situation, including financial, that arose later, he said. Though the problem is over two decades old, no serious efforts were done to address the issue.

The ‘Gajah’ report, a national task force on elephants, has banned the sale or gifting of elephants. It should be re-considered, Mr. Subbaiah said.

K. Jeevan Chinnappa

More than 60 elephants have made Kodagu coffee estates their home, and many calves have never entered the forests