Conserving elephants in the southernmost western ghats

The government has notified 1,197 sq. km. in Agasthyamalai landscape in Tirunelveli and Kanniyakumari districts as the State’s fifth elephant reserve

Updated - August 19, 2022 08:28 am IST

Published - August 18, 2022 10:42 pm IST

Smooth passage: The Kalakad Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve plans to revive the elephant migratory paths. 

Smooth passage: The Kalakad Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve plans to revive the elephant migratory paths.  | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

As a child, Gopal saw a herd of 37 elephants — yes, he counted them one by one — on the southern edge of the Western Ghats.

Around 40 years later, as an anti-poaching watcher now, he remembers how the herd spent almost a day along the dry deciduous forests on the eastern slopes of the landscape, which is crucial for the long-term elephant conservation.

In a renewed effort, the Tamil Nadu government, on World Elephant Day, notified 1,197 sq. km. in Agasthyamalai in Tirunelveli and Kanniyakumari districts (most of it protected area) as the State’s fifth elephant reserve. According to the 2017 census, the new reserve has about 200 elephants.

“It is one of the most significant milestones in conservation efforts for elephants,” said Supriya Sahu, Additional Chief Secretary, Environment, Climate Change and Forests. The notification comes 20 years after the formation of the previous elephant reserve.

“Initially, we plan to set up a conservation centre there along with a state-of-the-art rescue and rehabilitation centre with focus on research,” says Ms. Sahu. This could shape up as the ones in Top Slip and Mudumalai where ‘kumki’ elephants are housed to drive wild elephants away from human habitations back into the forests.

“The Kalakad Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve (KMTR) administration has drawn up plans for resurrecting the elephant migratory paths and removing encroachments along the corridors within the landscape,” says N. Senthil Kumar, Field Director, KMTR.

The plan is also to increase the camps for anti-poaching watchers and forest personnel in the forward areas and high ridges, where they can stay for four to five days. On the cards are increasing the strength of anti-poaching watchers and intensifying patrolling, removal of weeds and creation of scientifically dug trenches to avoid crop raiding, he adds.

Compact landscape

The creation of the new elephant reserve comes a decade after a task force submitted a report, ‘Gajah-Securing the Future of Elephants in India’. The report lists the Periyar-Agasthyamalai landscape as the southernmost part for the elephant population.

Recognising it to be one of the compact elephant habitats in the south without many human habitats, the report emphasises that it is crucial to establish connectivity with the Periyar population along the suggested Kottavasal corridor.

The report also suggests the acquisition of defunct estates in the heart of the elephant habitat (as in Meghamalai) and the need for strengthening protection. According to estimates, the Periyar-Agasthyamalai landscape has an estimated 2,000 elephants (in 2010) distributed across 6,000

It comprises the southern part of the Periyar plateau, and its eastern spur, the Srivilliputhur-Meghamalai Tiger Reserve, the Achankovil Valley, Agasthyamalai and the Mahendragiri hill ranges on the southern side.

Connecting corridor

The landscape on the northern side is probably the most intact elephant range in southern India. But human settlements, cultivation and the movement of heavy vehicles along the Madurai-Kollam National Highway 208 have cut off the habitat’s contiguity to a large extent between the Agasthyamalai landscape and the Periyar plateau, according to a study done by Asian Nature Conservation Foundation in 2011.

Therefore, about 250 elephants ranging in the southern part of the landscape are almost isolated from the larger landscape on the northern side, it says. Furthermore, at the Periyar Tiger Reserve which has a big population of elephants, the sex ratio at the adult stage was extremely skewed: 1:100. It changed marginally to 1:80 during 2005, the study reveals.

If the southern part of the landscape could maintain normal sex ratio (1:2 or 1:3), re-establishing the habitat’s contiguity between the northern or southern part would enhance the gene flow or reduce the consequences of inbreeding, the study notes.

Besides, the landscape is the only source of water for the southern parts of Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Therefore, an integrated landscape approach and linking parts of the north and south of the landscape through wildlife corridors is essential for long-term conservation of elephants and biodiversity and to safeguard the economic growth of thousands living around the landscape.

Activists, meanwhile, point to the reduced funding for Tamil Nadu from Project Elephant in the past 10 years, compared with Kerala and Karnataka, and the need to vigorously pursue more funding to secure elephant corridors, at least in the high conflict zones.

Back in the pristine forests of Kalakad, Selvaraj goes on his regular beat along the edges of shola forests as it rains heavily through a day in the middle of August. He has been protecting the KMTR for over three decades. A forest guard now, he knows most of the elephant herds, their terrains, migration patterns and identifies new herds from Kerala as well.

“The elephants usually live in the shola forests in the upper reaches. When it rains, they come down in herds to avoid insect bites and camp in the foothills for a few months. When the sun shines, they climb up the mountains again. It is such a delight to watch the elephants in the wild,” he says.

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