State prepares for biggest elephant capture operation since 1971 ‘khedda’

OUT OF PLACE?: In Alur taluk, a herd of 25–30 elephants inhabit a tiny 5-sq. km forest patch circumscribed by agricultural fields that they routinely raid, according to M.D. Madhusudan, a member of the Karnataka Elephant Task Force. File photo  

With a green signal from the Karnataka High Court on Tuesday, the Department of Forests now sets about planning its biggest ever operation to capture wild elephants since the State’s last ‘khedda’ in 1971, when 47 animals were captured.

At the very least, this would mean the capture and taming of around 25 elephants in Hassan’s Alur taluk, the epicentre of human-elephant conflict in the State. The Karnataka Elephant Task Force in its report to the High Court in September 2012, identified two regions — Alur and Tumkur district’s Savandurga — as “elephant removal zones” for the “unacceptable levels” of conflict they encountered.

The department, however, places “the outer limit” for the number of elephants to be captured at 150 and hope to extend the ‘removal zone’ to parts of Kodagu where human-elephant conflict is intense. “The actual number we capture will be much less, but we’ll have to take a call on areas such as Kodagu based on an assessment of conflict levels and perceptions of people here,” said Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife) G.S. Prabhu.

‘Extreme measure’

Members of the task force don’t quite agree. Removing wild elephants from a natural landscape is “an extreme measure” and one that should be done with the “greatest judiciousness”, said M.D. Madhusudan, scientist with the Nature Conservation Foundation and task force member. Only two areas have been identified by the task force as potential “removal zones” and Kodagu is not one of them, he said.

Alur was an anomaly of sorts and justifies the approach, he explained. The conflict in Alur was intense, and the elephant population was ecologically unviable. “Here, a herd of 25–30 elephants inhabit a tiny 5-sq. km forest patch circumscribed by agricultural fields that they routinely raid.” Between 1986 and 2011, elephants killed 46 people and injured over 240, according to the task force report, creating a “fear psychosis among people that hampers their ability to work and live normal lives.”

The situation in Kodagu was not adequately studied yet, said Raman Sukumar, chairman of the Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science. “We first need to assess the conflict situation in Kodagu, understand the dynamic of elephants here (are they transitory, for instance) before we decide on a course of action.”

Meanwhile, the Department of Forests has set aside Rs. 4 crore to create kraals to restrain elephants captured, which typically take a year to tame, and new elephant camps. “The project can only begin in January, after the rain,” Mr. Prabhu said, and added that the department would be using a combination of methods that incorporate elements from traditional ‘khedda’ (stockade traps) and also modern-day chemical tranquilising.

Back to the wild

Even as it prepares for a large-scale capture of elephants, the department, ironically, admits that its 10 camps, which together have 91 elephants, are too crowded.

“We are looking at the possibility of returning around 30 of these back to the wild,” Mr. Prabhu said.

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