The Madras High Court on Monday was informed of elephant expert Ajay Desai’s recommendation that wild elephant Chinna Thambi of the Thadagam valley in Coimbatore should be captured, brought into captivity and trained in the Forest department’s camp, where it can be a productive part of conservation efforts.
Justices S. Manikumar and Subramonium Prasad were told that the expert, however, did not offer an opinion whether Chinna Thambi was a suitable animal to be trained as a kumki (aggressive captive elephants trained by the department to bring other elephants under control) because he was now less than 20 years old and weighed under four tonnes.
“However, it must be borne in mind that if suitable as a koonkie [variant spelling of kumki ], Chinna Thambi would help greatly in conservation and human elephant conflict mitigation work,” the expert’s latest report, submitted before the court, by Additional Government Pleader (forests) S.V. Vijay Prashanth along with a counter affidavit, read.
The expert opinion had come pursuant to failure of negative conditioning methods adopted by the Forest department, using its rapid response team as well as kumkis to prevent the animal from straying into human habitations and indulging in crop raiding. Mr. Desai feared that Chinna Thambi might pass on his “abnormal behaviour” to other elephants.
The report as well as the counter affidavits were filed in response to a couple of PIL petitions filed in the court in connection with translocation of Chinna Thambi. After taking the documents on file, the judges decided to hear the cases in detail on Tuesday since there was very little time on Monday for an elaborate hearing.
In one of his earlier reports, Mr. Desai stated that human-elephant conflict (HEC) was a very serious issue in Coimbatore forest division with as many as 77 deaths and 61 injuries having been reported since 2011. Further, the Forest department had received 216 compensation claims for property damage and 2,421 claims for crop loss during the same period.
Stating that elephants generally preferred flat or mildly undulating terrain to slopy terrains, the expert said there was hardly any space in the foothills of Thadagam valley for their movement because reserve forest area ends almost the end of the foothills and revenue lands (agriculture and habitation) start immediately beyond that.
The numerous brick kilns that cropped up in the locality and the palmyrah trees used by them for fuel was one of the reasons for elephants being attracted to human habitations and the Collector had rightly banned the use of palmyrah trees as fuel wood, he said. However, much larger issues related to HEC were yet to be addressed, he said.
According to the expert, elephants in the region had been traditionally using the Kallar Corridor, a narrow passage along the foothills of Nilgiris mountains and north of Kallar River, as their pathway for migration. However, laying of Udhagamandalam-Mettupalayam-Coimbatore road cutting across the passage had disturbed their movement.
In 2016, World Wildlife Fund monitored traffic on the road on a weekday and counted over 7,000 motor vehicles using the corridor. Approximately, one vehicle passed through the road every nine seconds in day time and one vehicle for every 19 seconds during night hours. While some elephants got accustomed to the traffic, others started seeking new routes.
This made them move north and south of the corridor. Sounding a word of caution here, he said such animal movement should not be confused with the activities of certain pachyderms, which were habitual crop raiders and were not averse to intruding deep into human habitations and learn to overcome every obstacle including trenches and electric fencing.
Lamenting the absence of not many well-trained mahouts as well as kumkis, most of whom had retired from service, Mr. Desai said there was an imminent need to train young mahouts with the assistance of those who had retired. Further, new technologies such as drones and aversion tools such as sound or repellants could be used to drive elephants into the forests, he added.