A turf war with the wild

Instances of human-animal conflict are on the rise in Kerala with the summer heat, scarcity of food, and loss of habitat forcing wild animals to stray into human habitations for sustenance. The Hindu looks at the spate of recent conflicts that call for a lasting solution, which includes correcting some historical wrongs

March 21, 2024 11:59 pm | Updated March 22, 2024 09:39 am IST

Elephant herds in the Athirappilly area.

Elephant herds in the Athirappilly area. | Photo Credit: K.K.Najeeb

On March 5 morning, Rajan, 70, the mooppan or tribal chieftain of the Vachumaram Kadar colony, under the Vazhachal Forest Division in Kerala’s Thrissur district, ventured into the forest with his wife Valsala, 63, to collect Marottikkuru (Hydnocarpus wightianus), a seed used to make medicinal oil.  

The Kadars, a forest-dwelling community, often venture into the forest to collect forest produce. Many of them construct temporary tents deep inside the forest during the summer to collect honey, tubers, and other forest produce. They leave the forest only when the monsoon begins. The rich floral and faunal diversity of the evergreen and moist deciduous forests of Vazhachal, situated in more than 400 sq km along the Chalakudy river, give them enough for living, including honey, wild mangoes, jackfruit, white dammar, arrowroot, soap seed, and shikkakai. The five tribal communities who live in this forest division are the Ulladar, Malayars, Kadars, Muthuvans, and Mannans.    

“It was around 9.30 a.m. when we started collecting Marottikkuru a couple of kilometres from our colony. After collecting a headload of seeds, we began walking back home,” says Rajan. “I stopped to pick up some twigs to break open the seeds.”  

“Suddenly an elephant appeared out of nowhere. We didn’t even get a hint of its presence as there were tall reed bamboos in the area,” he says. The elephant knocked down Valsala with its trunk. Rajan managed to escape. “I couldn’t do anything. The elephant killed her in front of my eyes,” he adds.

Wild elephants that strayed into an oil palm farm of the Plantation Corporation of Kerala, near Vettilappara, under the Vazhachal forest division. 

Wild elephants that strayed into an oil palm farm of the Plantation Corporation of Kerala, near Vettilappara, under the Vazhachal forest division.  | Photo Credit: K.K.Najeeb

Rajan ran to the Kollathirumedu forest station, nearly four km away, for help. But Valsala died even before she could be rushed to the hospital.  

The elephant Manja Komban (yellow tusker), as the tribal people call it, has been creating terror in the area for some time. Two days after Valsala’s death, Manja Komban attacked a bus at Anakkayam on the Chalakudy-Sholayar road and chased a few tourists.  

Vazhachal Divisional Forest Officer R. Lakshmi says the elephant was in musth. This is a periodic condition among elephants characterised by aggressive behaviour and a rise in reproductive hormones. The Forest department is patrolling the area, where it is frequenting, to alert people.  

Rise in human-animal conflict

Kerala has been grappling with a surge in such incidents in almost all districts. The State’s significant forest cover, containing around 30% of its area, and the densely populated settlements and plantations close to wildlife habitats lead to frequent human-animal conflicts, says T.P. Sethumadhavan, former Director, Kerala Veterinary and Animal Sciences University.  

Human-wildlife conflicts have claimed 93 lives in the State in 2023-24. There were 8,873 incidents, including 98 human casualties, in 2022-23, according to the Economic Review 2022-23. Wayanad has been on the top of the list with 69 deaths reported between 2011 and 2024. While five people were killed by wild elephants, one died in the attack of a tiger in 2023-24 in Wayanad. The Wayanad forest is part of a wider region comprising Nagarhole, Bandipur and Mudumalai.  

Given the escalating cases, the Kerala government decided in March to declare human-animal conflict as a State-specific disaster. Kerala is the first State to do so. If earlier, the responsibility of managing such conflicts was with the Forest department, the onus has now shifted to the Kerala State Disaster Management Authority (KSDMA). The Cabinet has created a committee headed by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan to deal with the threat. The Chief Wildlife Warden has been appointed nodal officer.

The government has decided to form neighbourhood groups to intensify surveillance on forest fringes. These groups will work along with government departments and elected representatives to alert people through WhatsApp groups and public announcements system to the presence of wildlife. The government has recruited volunteer groups, including wildlife enthusiasts and environmentalists, to help the mission.

The Cabinet also decided to recruit more forest watchers to strengthen the surveillance network. It directed the Forest department to raise more rapid response teams with necessary equipment, including firearms, surveillance devices, aerial drones, tranquilising guns, and advance warning systems.  

Meanwhile, an inter-State coordination committee comprising Forest departments of Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu, held at Bandipur Tiger Reserve on March 10, resolved to tackle human-wildlife conflicts through collaborative action, intelligence sharing, and exchange of resources. This was a fallout of the number of incidents reported on the borders and the death of a person in Wayanad, who was trampled to death by an elephant that was radio-collared in Karnataka.

Not elephants alone

Besides elephants, tigers, leopards, bears, wild gaur, wild boars and monkeys are creating havoc in the lives of the people.  

On the same day the tribal woman at Vazhachal was attacked by an elephant, Abraham Palatt, alias Avarachan, 70, a farmer, was gored to death by a wild gaur in Koorachundu grama panchayat in Kozhikode district. He was found seriously injured in his farmland, around five km from the Kakkayam dam site, after he came under attack. Abraham was rushed to a hospital, where he succumbed to injuries.  

Koorachundu panchayat is situated along the Kuttiyadi Irrigation Project. The region is contiguous with forest under the South Wayanad Forest Division. A majority of the 6,000-odd families living in the panchayat are farmers cultivating rubber, coconut, nutmeg, cocoa, and arecanut.

Abraham and family were living in abject poverty though they owned 2.5 acre of farmland. They were living in a small house built for them by the church. Wild animals made it impossible to cultivate anything in their land. A week before the fatal attack, a gaur chased him, but he narrowly escaped by climbing a tree.

“This is not an isolated case. People have stopped rubber tapping fearing wildlife attacks. The gaur is still roaming around this area. Most families in the panchayat depend on the irrigation canals for their water needs. But that area has become unreachable now,” says Poly Karakkada, Koorachundu village panchayat president.

“We have been left to the mercy of frequently straying wild animals. People are afraid to go to their farms. Gaurs, elephants and wild boars make our life miserable. Nothing is left there in our fields. Wild animals have finished everything including tapioca, cocoa, plantain and arrowroot,” he says.  

People were up in arms at Koorachundu following the death of Abraham. They demanded that the gaur be shot, and steps be taken to fence the area to prevent further attacks. As the protest escalated, the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife) issued an order to shoot the gaur if it cannot be tranquilised or captured. But this is nearly impossible, say forest officials. Unlike elephants or tigers, it is difficult to identify wild gaurs by tracking their hoof marks.

Two elephants grazing in an area near Vettilappara, where rubber trees have been cleared for pineapple  cultivation. 

Two elephants grazing in an area near Vettilappara, where rubber trees have been cleared for pineapple  cultivation.  | Photo Credit: K.K. Najeeb

These two incidents took place just a day after Indira, 70, was trampled to death by a wild elephant at Kanjiraveli under the Neriamangalam forest range on the Ernakulam-Idukki border. She was harvesting arrowroot on a field with her husband, Ramakrishnan. According to her neighbour Susan Thomas, who was a witness to the attack, the elephant, which held the elderly woman between its legs, repeatedly attacked her with its tusks. She was rushed to hospital, but could not be saved.

According to statistics, four people have been killed by tigers in Wayanad district since 2010. The latest victim was 36-year-old young dairy farmer Prajeesh Kuttappan at Vakeri on December 11, 2023. He was attacked while he was collecting fodder for cattle. The tiger ate his body partially.

On March 6 this year, Shafeek Thadiampurath, 40, of Karakkunnu, Malappuram district, died when an autorickshaw he was riding overturned when a sounder of boars suddenly crossed the road. Widespread crop raids by wild boars forced the government in March 2022 to empower local self-governments to decide on culling them. 

Temporal and spatial specificities

Human-wildlife interactions are multifaceted with temporal and spatial specificities. For example, there are hardly any serious conflicts reported from a rich wildlife area such as Periyar Tiger Reserve, while most parts of Wayanad and Idukki are contrasting examples, says T.V. Sajeev, Chief Scientist, Kerala Forest Research Institute (KFRI).  

“The reasons include forest degeneration, hydrology of forests, impact of the floods in 2018 and 2019, proliferation of resorts on the forest fringes, behavioural changes of the wildlife, and invasion of non-edible alien plants and trees,” Dr. Sajeev notes.

According to a recent study by the KFRI, there are 22 invasive species of plants in the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary (WWS) that pose a serious threat to its natural flora and fauna. Senna spectabilis, known as manja konna in local parlance, is the commonest and the deadliest. Researchers point out that the elephant habitat in Wayanad is rapidly being taken over by Senna spectabilis, erasing the native vegetation.  

Fragmentation of wildlife habitats is a major factor leading to the conflicts. Being a thickly populated State (859/sq km), Kerala has numerous human enclosures, including tribal settlements and non-tribal habitats, within forest patches. Agricultural lands provide food on a platter for elephants, which travel 10-20 km a day in search of food.

The causes for the conflict are mostly location-specific, says P.S. Easa, former Director of the KFRI. “The waste dumped on streets attracts wild elephants in tourist places. Why do elephants such as Padayappa stray into Munnar town almost every day? You can see waste dumped everywhere in Munnar. Any salty food will attract wild animals. Munnar panchayat, where lakhs of people visit every year, lacks a proper waste management plan,” he says.

Degradation of forests, increasing heat in the deciduous forest (which sheds leaves), and severe shortage of food and water inside the forest drive the animals to human habitations, according to tribespeople. “The forest has undergone drastic degradation after the floods in 2018. Our people, who go to the forests, say that many fruit-bearing trees, like wild jackfruit, have declined in number. Mud and debris got dumped in the streams in the forest, blocking the flow of water. They dry up fast in the summer,” says Geetha Vazhachal, the chieftain of Vazhachal Kadar tribal hamlet.  

The Plantation Corporation of Kerala (PCK) has oil palm plantations on the banks of the Chalakudy river. Elephants frequent this place to eat oil palms. “Now the PCK is also planning to cultivate pineapple in some areas after chopping down rubber trees, which may attract more elephants and other animals,” says Vazhachal DFO Lakshmi.  

Elephants stray to the PCK’s oil palm plantation almost daily. They uproot oil palm trees to eat the tender portion inside its trunk. Once they uproot a tree, they camp in the area.  

“Elephants move to the Chalakudy river through the forest and plantation areas, where hundreds of labourers work and reside,” the DFO says.

“We used to leave the palm leaves after pruning the tree for the elephants. Once we leave the place, the elephants eat them. But now, the elephants wait for us to cut the leaves. As soon as we cut them, they chase us away to eat the leaves,” says C.K. Biju, a plantation corporation worker and the All-India Trade Union Congress (AITUC)’s Angamaly block secretary, pointing out the severe shortage of food in the forest.  

“Elephants eat anything they get from our houses,” says C.K. Omana, a plantation worker. “A week back, an elephant herd barged into the shed behind my house, where I would keep my clothes and miscellaneous things. Next day, I found my clothes and the plastic packet of washing powder in the elephant dung on the road.”  

Improving quality of forest

“Improving the quality of forest is the lasting solution for the human-wildlife conflict. Fragmentation and patchiness of the forests should be addressed,” says Geetha, the tribal chief.  

A conservation mission must be initiated urgently with tribal communities. The natural forest streams should be rejuvenated. Invasive plants should be removed. There is a need to replant the indigenous species, which have declined in numbers. Support of the MGNREGS can be used for the purpose, she says.

There should be awareness programmes on responsible tourism. Many times, tourists provoke elephants, she adds.

Effective management of human-wildlife conflicts requires an institutional framework starting from the grassroots level – from grama panchayat, to district, State, and inter-State levels. A collective approach, coordinating various departments, with the support of local people, has a significant role in mitigating the conflict, says Dr. Sajeev.

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