Valparai in Tamil Nadu is part of the Anamalai hills which literally translates to ‘elephant hills.’ Anamalai has the second-largest population of elephants in India. Data shows that between 1994 and July 2023, 48 people lost their lives in elephant attacks in this region which has 120-odd elephants and a human population of approximately 70,000.
Mysuru-based Nature Conservation Foundation started its efforts to mitigate human-elephant conflicts in Valparai when plantation owners from the area reached out to them in 2002.
When M. Ananda Kumar, senior scientist at NCF, and his team started studying the problem they noticed that there were rainforest fragments embedded within the tea plantations. Elephants that came from the surrounding protected areas would move through the plantations to get to these rainforest fragments.
The team identified herds and individual elephants and also noticed that their movement patterns were consistent. Crops weren’t damaged, but buildings like ration shops, noon-meal centres and residential places that stored food grains were.
“We looked at patterns. Most of the deaths happened on the roads between December to February. People aged between 40-60 years were most vulnerable. This gave us an idea of when and where to concentrate our efforts,” Mr. Kumar says.
Most cases of conflict were surprise encounters; People were unaware of elephants nearby and ran into them. This meant that if some kind of early warning system could be in place, many such incidents could be avoided.
Initially, warnings were sent out as tickers on the Valparai television channel, a local cable network subscribed to by around 25,000 people in the region then. Later the messaging was shifted to mobile phones.
In 2015 the team partnered with an automation company to develop a custom-designed lights system for warning. Operated using mobile phones, it is managed mostly by the locals today. All the deployed lights, when turned on, are visible from the bus stop in the nearest Valparai town.
“We also conduct awareness sessions and prepare people before the season starts. We communicate about precautions through street plays, and even bring TV artists from Chennai whom people look upto. All these measures are implemented in collaboration with the Tamil Nadu Forest department.”
The efforts have seen results. If the average number of people losing their lives in conflicts used to be three earlier, it has come down to one in the last 20 years. There have been no reports of deaths or injuries resulting from human-elephant conflicts in the past 2.5 years in the region.
Capturing not a solution
In 2015, the team started looking for solutions to mitigate conflicts in Hassan where coffee plantations are in abundance. According to the data from the Karnataka Forest Department, human-elephant conflicts resulted in the death of 20 people from the district in the last five years.
Between 2013 and 2015, 22 jumbos were captured and translocated. But the issue persisted. Data analysis by NCF between 2015 and 2019 showed that for every capture of an elephant, two to three new individuals appeared within 50 days from the date of capture.
The pattern of incidents was almost similar to that in Valparai. Most deaths happened on the roads between 6 to 10 am and 4 to 8 pm, when people went to or returned from work. Victims were mostly men aged between 40 and 60 years.
After interactions with the villagers and departments concerned, the team replicated their systems from Valparai in Hassan too with the help of Karnataka Forest Department. Around 7,000 people in Hassan have subscribed to the SMS alert system till date.
The number of deaths started showing a decline between 2018 and 2020. But unexpectedly things took a turn for the worse and 12 people died in conflicts between 2021 and 2022.
The reason? NCF research points to changes in land use.
Plantation owners have been fencing off their lands, and elephants, which used to take cover in these plantations while walking, couldn’t enter them anymore. This not only forced them to take the road, but they also started moving into the neighbouring Belur range of Sakleshpur where people didn’t have much experience in dealing with elephants, says Dr. Kumar.
NCF stepped up on its early warning systems. On top of SMS warnings and lights, the team, with the help of the forest department, installed digital information boards at junctions displaying information on elephant locations.
“For the last nine months, there have been no incidents, touchwood. But it is still challenging and achieving targets will take time,” Dr. Kumar says.
“Local communities, plantation owners, government departments, others like Cholamandalam Investment and Finance Company, The Habitat Trusts, Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies and so on have been supporting us. The Forest Department has radio-collared animals and shares information which is helpful to send alerts. Whatever positive outcomes we are seeing today is the result of collective effort.”