Elephants in the room

A small town in Tamil Nadu has become a microcosm of the escalating conflict and tenuous co-existence between humans and elephants across the country

Published - July 23, 2016 04:30 pm IST

Maharaja, the wild tusker who ravaged Madukkarai town for nearly a year, was finally captured by forest officials and led off the farms on June 19.

Maharaja, the wild tusker who ravaged Madukkarai town for nearly a year, was finally captured by forest officials and led off the farms on June 19.

Shabbir Imani’s farm on the outskirts of Tamil Nadu’s Madukkarai town looks like it’s been ravaged by a storm. Several portions of a tall metal fence lie crushed on the ground. A greenhouse for tomatoes is in tatters. Scores of wilting banana plants, snapped in two, dot the plantation. A giant blue water barrel lies crumpled like plasticine.

This is just part of the legacy of a turbulent, year-long impasse with Maharaja, the wild elephant that had become an enduring and contentious presence in several villages around Madukkarai. The forest department finally captured him last month, intending to take him into captivity, but the tusker died during the operation. Conservator of Forests, Coimbatore Forest Circle, I. Anwardeen, says the animal died from a fracture to his skull as he struck his head against the wooden kraal repeatedly.

S. Shanti, the caretaker at the farm, who saw the elephant almost every day for a year, had discovered a pattern in the animal’s behaviour. “He visited the farm every day at 8.00 a.m., almost on the dot. And nothing could stop him while he was feeding, not even firecrackers.” Once done, he would play ‘football,’ ears flapping, with barrels or other objects he found around the farm, she recalls almost fondly. “He never harmed us. But yes, we lived in constant fear.”

The 693 sq. km Coimbatore forest division, of which Madukkarai is a part, sees the highest incidence of human-elephant conflict in Tamil Nadu. Forest department figures show that in under 20 years, between 1999 and 2016, no less than 109 people lost their lives in elephant attacks, 24 elephants were electrocuted (most of them accidentally), and five were run over by trains, including the female elephant that was knocked down on June 20 this year. Between 2011 and 2015, as many as 1,828 compensation claims for crop damage were made in this division.

And in the area we are scouting, ‘Madukkarai Maharaja’ has become emblematic of the escalating conflict, the tenuous co-existence and the often futile and sometimes fatal attempts at resolution. This case also likely represents another phenomenon: a changing dynamic of elephant social behaviour catalysed by the historical poaching of tuskers and the intensive fragmenting of their habitat.

Maharaja’s reputation is far from benign. The forest department labelled him a ‘habitual depredator’ who visited around 25 villages last year, raiding crops and damaging property.

In September 2015, a forest guard in Kannammanaickanur village was trampled to death during an effort to drive the tusker back into the forest. R. Muthaiah, a 75-year-old farmer, witnessed the incident. “Thousands of people had gathered from some 10 villages. There was plenty of noise. This was the first time many of us had seen a wild elephant. The forest guard had climbed up a neem tree and when he came down, he was trampled by Maharaja. The elephant stayed next to the body for an hour before he was chased back into the forest.”

Yet, despite these formidable encounters, poster-tributes to Maharaja are plastered on compound walls and near Vinayaka temples in Madukkarai. ‘We thought you would leave this forest, but you left this world’ says a sentimental poster at the gate of a temple in Marrapalam near Madukkarai. “It is sad that he had to die. But he had become a nuisance,” concedes flower vendor R. Danapal as he strings oleander outside the temple. He had witnessed Maharaja’s capture, watched him being led away by kumkis (trained elephants) not far from here.

A relentless siren jolts awake Kittampalayam village around 40 km from Madukkarai. And K.B. Subbayan, a farmer, knows it can only mean one thing: wild elephants have breached the trench he has dug and knocked down his alarm-connected solar fence with practised ease, to feast on his banana farm. Again.

This time it is a pair. In the next two days, they take down a fourth of his just-fruiting trees, deftly stripping them down the middle to reach the succulent core ( vazhaithandu ), entirely undeterred by the rockets Subbayan fires in the air. When done, they leave behind a rotting heap of 400 disembowelled trees, which Subbayan estimates were worth Rs. 80,000.

Elephant raids are only a 10-year-old trend, says Subbayan. “We didn’t have this problem earlier. Nothing seems to work. Not chilli fences, not shockers or firecrackers.” He is now contemplating raising beehives on his property, which he says has seen some success in deterring elephants in Kerala.

At Valayapalayam village, workers are busy rewiring an electric fence around P. Chandrasekhar’s farm. “Heard there were fireworks last night?” inquires his friend who has biked down from a neighbouring village. A herd of four elephants had used a log of wood to push down the fence the previous night, Chandrasekhar explains.

Their footprints are fresh on a tank bund that has collapsed in parts and can be seen stamped across an adjacent onion field. Chandrasekhar says he is close to giving up farming because of the constant threat of crop raids. The state government’s compensation, in his experience, is a fraction of the losses and takes months to come. Anwardeen, however, says that compensations have been “cleared until March 31 this year.”

It is hard to say why the Coimbatore forest division has become a hotbed of conflict over the last decade. Says Ajay A. Desai of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), “We do not have studies, and it is like diagnosing a problem without conducting tests. We just do not have a clear understanding of why elephants have begun coming out of their natural habitat in this area.”

A report co-authored by Desai in Febrary 2016 on the ‘problematic male elephant in Madukkarai’ however presents a few hypotheses: acute habitat fragmentation, a degraded landscape and a constant stream of heavy traffic on the Mettupalayam-Ooty highway that cuts off elephant movement along their traditional migration route, the Kallar corridor, pushing them to forge new routes, sometimes through human habitation. The authors also explore another dimension: changing elephant behavioural ecology. The poaching of adult males in the 1970s to 1990s has meant that younger males don’t have older counterparts to “learn from,” says the report.

Older males had established certain patterns of interaction with humans and human habitations that they had adapted over generations. Adverse experiences had taught them to limit their crop raiding to short nightly intrusions into agricultural areas adjoining forests. But now, with “the break of such knowledge” because of the poaching of older males, the younger generation appears to have lost its fear of humans and tends to intrude deeper into habitations, the report suggests.

Raman Sukumar, an expert on the ecology of the Asian elephant and a professor at the Centre for Ecological Sciences at the Indian Institute of Science, cites another reason for their increasing forays into human habitation: changing crop patterns. “Crops are no longer seasonal and some of them are particularly attractive to elephants.”

Sukumar believes there is a need for serious dialogue at the national level, one that translates into a comprehensive policy on wildlife conflict mitigation. “We need strategies that are site-specific. Something that works in West Bengal may not work in Kodagu or Tamil Nadu.” He adds that there has been a four-fold increase in the number of human deaths from elephant attacks nationwide since the 1980s. “That gives you a rough index of the escalating conflict. We clearly have a lot of work ahead of us.”

But for now, the situation in Madukkarai, a microcosm of the larger conflict, seems frustratingly intractable. And both humans and elephants remain at risk.

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