The mammoth task of scaring away wild elephants from their traditional migration routes to protect pilgrims awaits guardians of wildlife at Sabarimala during every festival season.
Disaster management experts have recently identified 26 elephant crossing points along the 40-km Pathanamthitta-Pamba road to the Sabarimala temple, which is used by millions annually.
The thoroughfare was cut through the forest terrain, breaching the traditional elephant migration routes to Ranni, Periyar East, and Erumeli forests. Animals regularly forage through the forest ranges in search of food and water and cross the road at different points.
The forest segment at Sabarimala is part of the Periyar Elephant Reserve, which is home to nearly half of the elephant population of the Kerala forests. It is estimated that there are around 3,200 animals in the reserve, which stretches from Periyar to Agasthyamala.
As many as eight herds with around 75 members of various age groups are roaming the forest area encircling the hill temple. The movement of each herd is closely monitored and animals diverted from their paths during the pilgrim season to avoid the catastrophic possibility of pilgrims encountering them, said C. Babu, Deputy Director of the Periyar Tiger Reserve (West Division).
The animals will also have to be diverted from their other traditional migration routes of Chalakkayam-Pamba, Azhuthakkad-Cheriyanavattom-Pamba and Pullumedu-Sannidhanam during the season, he said.
The arduous task of tracking the tuskers is vested mostly with tribal watchers engaged by the department. Information on movement of the animals is required to scare them away from the paths used by the pilgrims. Trained and armed forest guards are deployed to ensure the safety of pilgrims. Three elephant squads armed with tranquiliser guns and other facilities are also kept ready during each season.
Besides firecrackers, audio recordings of roaring tigers are also played to push the animals away from their paths, he said.
Last year, the Forest Department had opposed the lighting up of the Pullumedu-Sannidhanam route during night hours as it was the only pathway that facilitated elephant movement. The Pullumedu region is home to two herds of elephants and if this thoroughfare too is closed during night hours, animals would be forced to move through the areas occupied by pilgrims, he said.
Forest officials urged the pilgrims not to deviate from the trekking path and venture into the forest. The tendency of pilgrims to camp at hillocks and interior forest areas for days together to witness Makara Vilakku is a risky affair as it would upset the animals, he warned.