In the chapter ‘Corridors for elephants’ in his book Whispers from the Wild , renowned conservationist, the late E.R.C. Davidar, states, “In Sigur, as elsewhere, elephants were facing a far more serious problem than ivory poaching...namely, fragmentation of their habitat.”
In the decades since the book’s publication, Davidar’s observations gained more prescience as illegal resorts mushroomed in the region since the late 1990s.
His efforts at documenting the damage caused to the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve (NBR) and elephant pathways, either through large-scale infrastructure projects like the Pykara Hydroelectric Scheme, or the clearing of forests to set up plantations to provide jobs for Sri Lankan repatriates, has, in some part, led to the safeguarding of the Sigur elephant corridor. The notification of the Sigur corridor by the State government, which was upheld by the Supreme Court a few years ago, could form the blueprint for conservation of elephant corridors elsewhere in the State.
An elephant corridor, as defined by the Wildlife Trust of India’s publication — Right of Passage: Elephant Corridors of India — in the most simplistic terms is as follows, “The most commonly assumed distinguishing characteristic of a corridor is its function as a linear landscape element to facilitate species movement.”
B. Ramakrishnan, assistant professor at the Government Arts College in Udhagamandalam and member of the Asian Elephant Specialist Group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), says, “Elephant corridors connect habitats that are crucial in maintaining the genetic diversity of the Asian elephant.” Mr. Ramakrishnan, who has extensively studied the elephant corridors in the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve, says corridors ensure elephant populations in the Western and Eastern Ghats can mingle and breed.
“These corridors ensure that populations in Mudumalai, Bandipur, Wayanad, Mukurthi, Coimbatore, Silent Valley and Mannarkkad in the Western Ghats can breed with elephant populations in the Eastern Ghats,” he explained.
Highlighting a 2013 report of Wildlife Trust of India on elephant pathways, Mr. Ramakrishnan says the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve alone has around 11 elephant corridors, while there are at least 101 such corridors across India. “India is home to around half the population of Asian elephants, while South India is home to half of India’s elephant population, which makes securing these corridors extremely important.”
A right step
Dr. Priya Davidar, researcher, conservation biologist and daughter of E.R.C. Davidar, said the notification of the Sigur corridor was a step in the right direction. “Since the closure of the resorts, the elephants don’t seem to get as close to human settlements as they used to, and seem to be staying inside the forests possibly due to more availability of water and food,” she points out.
Jean-Philippe Puyravaud, of the Sigur Nature Trust in Mavanallah, says, “The notion of a corridor itself will encourage leaving passages for elephants to move between habitats and hopefully will allow policymakers to ensure these corridors are preserved.”
According to conservationists, elephant habitats and corridors need to be looked at holistically, and not be limited to geographical boundaries. “While Tamil Nadu is an outlier in that it has secured the Sigur corridor, the same protections are not afforded to elephants across different habitats,” says Mr. Ramakrishnan.
Vivek Menon, chairman of the Asian Elephant Specialist Group of the IUCN, says it is imperative that the Central government empower the States to notify elephant corridors, possibly through amendments to the Wildlife Protection Act. While the Tamil Nadu government had shut resorts and commercial establishments following the notification, most States are yet to even notify the corridors.
“There are also solutions to the problems posed by linear infrastructure such as roads and rail lines to elephant habitats and corridors like the construction of overpasses and underpasses...,” says Mr. Menon.
Tamil Nadu seems to have taken the lead in ensuring protection for the corridors. Chief Wildlife Warden Shekar Kumar Niraj told The Hindu that the government was working on a legislation that would help to govern and manage the elephant corridors. “There are around 19 corridors in Tamil Nadu, as well as four inter-State corridors, identified by the Wildlife Trust of India. We need to update knowledge of the pathways currently used by elephants, and steps have been taken to collect data for this exercise,” he said.