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On the frontlines of an elephantine conflict

Anti-poaching watchers standing guard to prevent elephants coming to the residential area at Pandalur in Nilgiris.

Anti-poaching watchers standing guard to prevent elephants coming to the residential area at Pandalur in Nilgiris.   | Photo Credit: M. Sathyamoorthy

The Gudalur Forest Division’s efforts to track and monitor every elephant in the range has led to a fall in fatalities

It’s just a few minutes shy of 10 p.m on a rain-soaked night at one of the “camps” set up in one the conflict-prone zones in Pandalur. Forest guard, V. Louis gets a phone call from a worried resident. An elephant is chasing motorists along a road.

The team of forest staff on the frontlines of the human-elephant conflict, known as the Anti-Depredation Squads (ADS), clamber into their SUV and rush to Athima Nagar, cutting through a tea estate.

“It's probably ‘Mogara Veengi’, a lone tusker,” says Gobi. By the time we get there 15 minutes later, with fire crackers and other noise-makers, the elephant has gotten off the road and into one of the vast tea estates.

Preventing confrontation

Every day, more than 100 forest staff in the Gudalur Forest Division, including ADS members, anti-poaching watchers and Rapid Response Team personnel, are mobilised to ensure that elephant herds and lone tuskers living in the high-conflict zones in the region do not stray too close to human habitations.

“Last year, more than 16 people died in human-animal conflicts in the region. But this year, due to continuous monitoring of the elephant herds, lone makhnas and tuskers in this belt, there have been only four reported deaths,” says P.K. Dileep, District Forest Officer, Gudalur Forest Division.

Intimate knowledge

The forest staff, who have to broker peace between the residents of Gudalur and the diverse wildlife which call the region their home, know almost each herd and animal individually. There are upwards of 250 elephants in the area at any given point of time, given the migration patterns.

“We know how each animal behaves, and we know which ones are more dangerous,” says V. Saravanan, Forest Range Officer (FRO), Pandalur. The forest staff have names for the elephants too — there is Mottai Vaal (bald tail), who has lost a portion of its tail in a fight with another elephant, and Mogara Veengi, the elephant with a large face. These two animals are known to raid crops and enter human habitations. Then there is Nadodi Ganesan, a very gentle animal but a problem too, as he raids plantations and crops in the area.

Conflicts between humans and elephants become acute at night, when people returning from work are unable to see the large but often very silent animals. Hence forest staff are especially watchful between 6 p.m. till around 8 a.m.

Gudalur’s residents, mostly farmers, have an antagonistic relationship with the wildlife and the Forest Department. Forest staff say the people living here view the elephants as pests, and hold the Forest Department responsible for their actions.

They recall how the local people wanted a forest guard transferred after an elephant killed an inebriated man. “The man was still alive, barely, but locals blocked the road with his body lying there, and demanded the transfer of a local forest staff,” said an official. “The locals say the elephants are ‘our elephants’ and that because we protect them, we have to take responsibility for any damage they cause,” he added.

Danger in the dark

Though run-ins between elephants and humans are common, fatalities, when they occur, are often caused by human callousness. The recent death of a tribal man in Chembakolli occurred after the victim, also inebriated, literally walked straight into a grazing elephant. These include attacks near a dump yard in Deivamalai near Gudalur, where herds come for the discarded vegetable waste.

Conflicts are also rife near tea estates, where workers have to go out to defecate and do not spot the animals until it’s too late.

It is to prevent, or at least, minimise such conflicts that the Forest Department has come up with a mechanism to monitor the elephants across the clock.

“Rather than chasing elephants, our job is to continuously monitor their movements ,” says Mr. Saravanan. “Elephants have to feed too, and their habitats are so fragmented in the Gudalur region that it makes no sense to chase them every time they enter a tea plantation.”

Gudalur’s once pristine evergreen forests have lost their contiguity and are now small oases surrounded by large tea plantations. “Even if we chase them, we would succeed in getting them from one estate to another or to a different forest range, and they would have to chase them again into ours,” says another forest staffer in Pandalur.

Operations at night, carried out by ADS staff, are especially nerve-racking. Less than a year ago, a forest staffer was killed by an elephant in Kannampalli in Cherambadi while he was trying to chase it away from a human settlement.

The Gudalur Forest Division, despite being on the frontlines of the conflict, faces a massive shortage of manpower. However, the staff's dedication and meticulous planning by the DFO have ensured that the staff are always on call, and almost all elephants are accounted for in their division around the clock.

During the day, forest staff monitor the animals, taking pictures, recording the size of the herd and logging their GPS co-ordinates, so that their patterns of movement are always watched, says Mr. Dileep.

The “most vulnerable” areas, where elephant crossings and their natural corridors intersect with human settlements are clearly marked and mapped. With hundreds of such habitations in the belt, the Forest Department has set up camps strategically, with staff stationed at night, ready for action if the animals enter the habitations nearby.

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Printable version | Jun 6, 2020 5:21:36 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/on-the-frontlines-of-an-elephantine-conflict-in-nilgiris/article19524685.ece

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