Lumbering into the villages, pushing their massive bodies lazily through fields and plantations, elephants have etched themselves fearfully into the ethos of Alur and Sakaleshpur taluks on the foothills of the Western Ghats in Karnataka. With the project to relocate elephants failing, a section of the villagers in Sakaleshpur taluk are now asking the government to move them out instead.
“Come back home before it’s dark” is the customary caution whenever someone leaves home in the area. The fear is not misplaced. Elephants have been blamed for the death of 46 persons in the last 16 years. And more than seven elephants have died of electrocution from fences erected to keep them out.
Earlier, the villagers felt safe in the mornings. But now that too is changing. Ramesh Achar, 60, had just got off a bus at Kudurangi village one evening in the month of March when a wild elephant suddenly charged at him. He died a violent death. “A week ago,” recalled Subrahmanya of Kerodi village, “we were all dumbstruck when we saw an elephant feeding on banana leaves in the garden on the main street of the village at 7 a.m.”
Children at risk
This month, people have seen at least 30 elephants in small groups moving around the villages. In 2013, a girl studying in Class 5 ran into one on her way to school near Rayarakoplu in Alur taluk. The elephant followed her. But she escaped with minor injuries as the animal entered a plantation.
Ajay Simha, a student at the Government Higher Primary School at Harihalli, said he was petrified when he saw an elephant near his house around 8.30 p.m. two weeks ago. “My father was just stepping out to park the car. We all ran inside as the elephant was standing near the vehicle,” he said.
Owners of coffee estates are now providing pick up and drop services for the workers. Yet, there have been instances when elephants have attacked the pick-up vehicles as well.
A reservoir of trouble
The man-elephant conflict in the region is a relatively recent development.
Till the 1960s, there were hardly any such incidents. Everything changed when the Hemavathi reservoir submerged more than 22,000 acres. Much of the pathway of the elephants went under water. Subsequently, as the region developed, roads and railway lines too cut across the elephant corridor.
In 1987, after several years of protests and complaints, the Forest Department took up an elephant relocation plan.
But the project stalled after initial enthusiasm. It was taken up once again in 2013-14, when 23 elephants were captured and relocated. Most of them were sent to elephant camps. A couple of them were released into a national park. “These two returned to Sakaleshpur forests within 40 days,” said Ramesh Babu, Assistant Conservator of Forests of Sakaleshpur.
The failure of the plan was studied by M.K. Appayya, retired Principal Chief Conservator of Forests. On his suggestion, two elephants were captured and released into the Bandipura National Park in 2010 with radio collars. Both were back within a month.
Hundreds of people in the villages have lost their crops to elephant raids. Many have stopped cultivating their lands.
Now, at least a section of the residents have demanded that they be relocated. As many as 400 farmers have expressed their willingness to give up a total of 2,300 acres to strengthen the elephant corridor in the region. “This is a unique development, where people have come forward to give up their land as a solution to the elephant raids,” said Kishor Kumar, environmentalist and president of Malenadu Janapara Horata Samiti.
But this too is not without its share of problems. By and large, those interested in relocation are big planters, many of whom have settled down in cities.
The Hassan administration held two meetings with small farmers holding two to five acres that they have refused to give up because they have no alternative sources of income. Some want compensation of at least ₹15 lakh an acre, which would scale up the cost of the project to nearly ₹350 crore.
With no immediate solution in sight, there is a sense of desperation among the villagers. Several efforts to “elephant-proof” their farms have come to nought.
“Elephants are highly intelligent,” says Shekharaiah, a coffee planter, whose solar-powered electric fence around his plantation was destroyed by the pachyderms. “They broke the fences with heavy branches of nearby trees,” he said.
In the paths between farms and villages, plantations and homes, nightfall brings with it a self-imposed curfew. “If you come in the evening. You won’t find anybody here,” said Nagesh of Kerodi.
If it is absolutely necessary, then people move in groups — usually armed with drums and firecrackers.