No quick fix for man-elephant conflict

Since August 8, six people have died in elephant attacks in the two neighbouring districts of Hassan and Chikkamagaluru. Among them, two were working for the Forest Department

December 08, 2023 09:00 am | Updated 04:20 pm IST - Shivamogga


The forest department staff and caretakers of tamed elephants successfully captured a tusker in Belur on November 28.  The department launched the operation on November 24 to radio collar nine elephants in Hassan district.

The forest department staff and caretakers of tamed elephants successfully captured a tusker in Belur on November 28. The department launched the operation on November 24 to radio collar nine elephants in Hassan district. | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Meena, a 32-year-old worker, had just reached the coffee plantation in Galigundi near Aldur in Chikkamagaluru district on November 8 morning, along with fellow workers. She was about to have breakfast when she encountered a wild tusker. She froze in shock and the pachyderm trampled her to death and moved on nonchalantly.

Watching tamed elephants take a stroll on the city streets as part of the Dasara procession inspires awe. But encountering a tusker in the wild or in the coffee estates of Hassan and Chikkamagaluru districts can be very dangerous. Like Meena, many have died in the two districts in the last 20 years. Since August 8 (Elephant Day), six people have died in elephant attacks in the two neighbouring districts. Among them, two were working for the Forest Department.

A wild tusker, which was sedated with a transquilizer, died in Mudigere taluk on December 2. The officers said it died accidentally.

A wild tusker, which was sedated with a transquilizer, died in Mudigere taluk on December 2. The officers said it died accidentally. | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Two from Department

H.H. Venkatesh, 67, popularly known as Aane Venkatesh, was trampled to death by a tusker during the elephant capture operation in Alur taluk of Hassan on August 31. Karthik Gowda, 26, who was part of the Elephant Task Force, succumbed to injuries in a similar attack at Byrapura, near Mudigere, on November 22. Both lost their lives in their efforts to minimise man-elephant conflict in the region.

Besides, Kavitha, 37, an agricultural labourer, died in Vadur of Hassan on August 18. Kinni, 60, of Durga village in Chikkamagaluru, died on October 23, and Dipak Ray, 54, a construction worker from West Bengal, died in an elephant attack at Ankihalli in Belur taluk on October 27.

These deaths in a short period highlight the severity of the problem that local people have been facing. Spread over several herds, wild elephants roam in parts of Sakaleshpur, Alur, Belur, Mudigere, and Chikkamagalur taluks. Before getting out of the house, people have to check on the latest alert from the Forest Department about the location of the herds. The department sends messages on the location of elephants through WhatsApp. The members of Rapid Response Teams, formed by involving local youths, keep track of herds and inform the people. Similarly, the department has a system to track the movement of herds, as radio collars have been installed on several female elephants that lead the herds.

Yet, conflicts occur and lead to deaths. Given the increasing number of elephants, it has been difficult for the department to keep track of all elephants and alert the public. In the past, there were incidents in which children playing near their houses were killed, schoolchildren were charged, bikers were attacked, and houses were raided.

The forest department staff and caretakers of tamed elephants successfully captured a tusker in Belur on November 28.

The forest department staff and caretakers of tamed elephants successfully captured a tusker in Belur on November 28. | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Loss to farmers

Besides the threat to human lives, the elephants roaming in the fields have caused a heavy loss to growers. Many farmers have lost their crops despite putting in a lot of effort and money. A stroll by a herd of elephants in an estate uproots coffee plants nurtured for years, impacting the yield. The compensation paid towards crop loss is meagre considering the input cost. Added to that is the time required to cultivate the same again. Local people have staged protests on several occasions demanding the state and central governments capture all elephants and relocated.

However, the laws of the land and the court directions do not support en-masse relocation of elephants. Environmentalists argue that damage caused to the forest cover, particularly the elephant corridor, in the name of widening highways, laying railway tracks, power projects, laying power lines, and mega irrigation projects are the cause of increased man-elephant conflicts. Animal lovers opine that elephants are in their place, while it is human beings who have encroached upon the animals’ space.

Capturing elephants

With this situation on the ground, the Forest Department often takes up the exercise of capturing elephants, particularly those causing trouble, and shifting them to a different places. There have been many such drives in the past. A major drive to relocate 22 elephants was carried out in Hassan in 2013–14. Since 1986, the department has translocated more than 80 elephants. Whenever such operations are conducted, incidents of man-elephant encounters have come down, at least for a few months. However, within a short span, the incidents recur, forcing the department to jump into action again.

The Forest Department gave clearance to capture three elephants in Chikkamagaluru and Mudigere taluks and relocate them to Bhadra Tiger Reserve in November this year. The operation is still going on. Similarly, another operation is going on in Hassan, where the task is to capture nine elephants and fix radio collars. As per the plan, the tuskers would be translocated and female elephants would be freed in the same place. As female elephants lead the herds, it would be possible to track their movements with the help of radio collars.

Arjuna, the tusker, was buried in Yeslur range in Sakalehspur taluk of Hassan on December 5. The tusker died in a fight with a wild tusker during the elephant capture operation the previous day.

Arjuna, the tusker, was buried in Yeslur range in Sakalehspur taluk of Hassan on December 5. The tusker died in a fight with a wild tusker during the elephant capture operation the previous day. | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

A tough task

The department staff and caretakers of the tamed elephants that take part in the elephant capture operations have a tough task. Veterinarians, who accompany the teams, risk their lives to fire tranquillizer darts that help sedate the animals. Dr. Vinay S., veterinarian of Shivamogga Wildlife Division, had multiple injuries after he was attacked by an elephant during one such operation in Channagiri in April this year. He recovered after spending months in the hospital. H.H. Venkatesh, who was part of the team in Hassan, died during the operation as a tusker trampled him. Similarly, Karthik Gowda, a member of the elephant task force, died in similar circumstances in Chikkamagaluru.

“Darting an elephant is not an easy task,” says a veterinarian involved in such operations. One has to study the terrain, understand the weight of the animal, and ensure there is no danger to the animal around. “We can gauge the age by analysing its footprints. One has to ensure there is no water body nearby, as there are chances of animals falling into the water after it is tranquilized. Besides that, there are many factors that deserve attention. There is a set protocol to follow,” he said.

Arjuna, the tusker, was buried in Yeslur range in Sakalehspur taluk of Hassan on December 5. The tusker died in a fight with a wild tusker during the elephant capture operation the previous day.

Arjuna, the tusker, was buried in Yeslur range in Sakalehspur taluk of Hassan on December 5. The tusker died in a fight with a wild tusker during the elephant capture operation the previous day. | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Death of elephants

The officers and veterinarians have attracted a lot of criticism following the two recent incidents that led to the deaths of two elephants. In Chikkamagaluru, a tusker, which was identified for capture, died during the operation at Mekanagadde in Mudigere taluk on December 2. The elephant died after the tranquillizer dart was fired. Even after clear instructions from the senior officers to follow the rules and guidelines, the operation was carried out late in the night, according to sources in the department. However, the officers concluded that it died accidentally.

In the latest case, Arjuna, the tusker, died during the operation at Yeslur Range of Forest in Sakaleshpur taluk. The incident left thousands of people across the state mourning as the elephant was popular. He had carried the golden howdah of Mysuru Dasara eight times. Besides that, Arjuna had participated in elephant capture operations and led a team of other tamed and trained elephants successfully. He died in a fight with a wild elephant. In the meantime, the department captured another tusker in Chikkamagaluru and shifted the same to elephant camp, though there was clear instruction to relocate it. The officers maintained that the elephant required care as it suffered injuries in the operation.

Such incidents highlight the need for proper training for the officials, the staff, and the caretakers of elephants. Minister for Forests Eshwar Khandre, after these incidents, has said that the department will give importance to training the staff on how to conduct the elephant capture operations effectively.

No system to train

Interestingly, there is no system to train caretakers of elephants. Only those who are already into handling elephants train their children unofficially. There is no chance for others to enter the field. During the recent recruitments to fill up vacancies for elephant caretakers, it was evident that there were no trained candidates, except for those from the families of people already doing the job. And elephants obey only the orders of their mahouts.

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