T.N. Govt. faces stiff challenges to balance needs of human communities and elephant habitats in Gudalur

Legal experts and conservationists feel that notifying the Bospara to Nilambur corridor and the O’Valley corridor is vital for the conservation of the Asian elephant in the region

Updated - May 15, 2024 11:49 pm IST

Published - May 15, 2024 08:51 pm IST - UDHAGAMANDALAM

Two elephant corridors identified in Gudalur forest division are crucial passages that link Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, Gudalur and Nilambur forest divisions.

Two elephant corridors identified in Gudalur forest division are crucial passages that link Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, Gudalur and Nilambur forest divisions. | Photo Credit: File photo

Despite opposition from residents and political parties to the Tamil Nadu government identifying two corridors that run through Gudalur in the Nilgiris, legal experts and conservationists feel that notifying the two corridors will be imperative in ensuring the conservation of the Asian elephant in the region.

The experts feel that notifying the corridor will help in reducing further encroachments to elephant habitats in the region, but also state that the government needs to ensure that pattas are distributed to people who have been living in the region for many decades to ensure peaceful co-existence between humans and animals.

Draft elephant corridor report

The draft elephant corridor report details the presence of anywhere between 60 and 80 elephants in the Gudalur forest division, where two crucial corridors - the Bospara to Nilambur corridor and the O’Valley corridor have been identified. The two corridors foster the movement of elephants between Mudumalai, Gudalur and Nilambur forest divisions.

However, since the release of the report, political parties have voiced their opposition to the identification of the corridors, stating that they fear that local residents would be evicted by the Forest Department and the government.

If notified, the O’Valley corridor in particular, comprising the villages of Deivamalai, Lauriston, Moolakadu, Seaforth and Amblimalai, which are all under the management of leaseholders from Manjushree, Mahavir, Shanthi and Sathyakumari tea plantation companies, will need to be included as part of the corridor. Similarly, the villages of Kariyashola, Devarshola block – comprising Padanthorai, Kadasankolly, Murampilavu, Somanvayal, Puliyampara, Irumbupalam, Devala, among others will be included in the Bospara to Nilambur corridor.

Volatile region

The O’Valley corridor, in particular, will pass through the lands of people with no pattas to their lands due to occupying lands classified under “Section 17” of The Gudalur Janmam Estates (Abolition and Conversion into Ryotwari) Act of 1969. Over the last century, the government’s failure to settle legitimate claims for pattas, combined with new encroachers from Kerala settling in the region over the last few decades has meant that the O’Valley region remains extremely volatile, with regular confrontations between residents and the Forest Department, who have been fighting a losing battle trying to stop encroachments in the region.

“There is no question that the two corridors need to be secured,” said B. Ramakrishnan, Head of the Department of Wildlife Biology at the Government Arts College and member, of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Asian elephant specialist group.

The corridors see movement of elephant populations from Nagarhole, Bandipur, Wayanad, Sathyamangalam, Kollegal, Chamarajanagar, Silent Valley, Coimbatore and Mannarkkad, said Mr. Ramakrishnan, adding that the extent of measures that will be taken to ensure that elephants’ “right of passage” is maintained will have to be a decision taken by the government.

Tarsh Thekaekara, a state wildlife board member, believes that a compromise needs to be reached with communities already residing in the region. “Our understanding of elephant corridors stems from the 1980s, when elephants only stayed in forested areas, away from people. Today they move everywhere, so we need to think of landscape-wide protection of habitats,” said Dr. Thekaekara, adding that O’Valley, which might have been a corridor in the past, is now home to at least two herds of elephants all year round.

“We need to manage these areas as co-existence zones, where people and animals will need to live alongside each other. Negative interactions in the region need to be mitigated by bringing in schemes where crops that are not attractive to elephants, such as tea, coffee, citrus or even rosemary and others can be grown, and limited eco-tourism can be promoted to ensure livelihoods for local communities,” said Dr. Thekaekara.

Janmam lands

Local activists have also called for lands that are under the control of the major plantations in O’Valley to be taken over by the government and redistributed to settlers. “The problem is that over 35,000 acres of janmam lands are under the control of a handful of estates. The encroachment by local residents is only a small fraction of the area that is occupied by the estates. If the government is serious about ensuring the protection of the O’Valley corridor, people need to be settled and given pattas, and no further encroachments should be allowed. This will ensure that people have access to homes and livelihoods and that the corridor can be protected and even expanded,” said Sobha Madhan, an Adivasi rights activist from Gudalur.

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