Tamil Nadu

‘Crowded’ Theppakadu camp raises questions on protocols to capture wild elephants

The Theppakadu elephant camp in Mudumalai Tiger Reserve.   | Photo Credit: M. SATHYAMOORTHY

Since 2018, the number of captive elephants at the Theppakadu camp has increased from 23 to 28. With two more animals likely to join the captive herd soon, the Forest Department is confronting questions about when to intervene and capture wild elephants, and also the impact the camp may have on the overall ecology of the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve.

The reasons for the recent major operations conducted in the Nilgiris to capture or restrain wild elephants were varied. One elephant, Shankar, was captured in Gudalur for confrontations with humans that left two people dead, while another, Rivaldo, was coaxed into a “kraal” (elephant shelter) for medical treatment.

In Gudalur, a tusker that had sustained injuries during a fight with another elephant a few years ago, is to be captured in the coming days and taken to Theppakadu.

With the elephant population at the camp increasing, conservationists and forest department officials told The Hindu that many of these “capture operations” were driven by public outcry, with the department having very little option but to intervene.

“Even in the case of the elephant in Gudalur, that is going to be captured, it is important to remember that the injury was caused naturally, in a fight with another elephant. These are natural processes, that shouldn’t require human intervention, regardless of whether the animal lives or dies,” said a top State-level Forest Department official requesting anonymity.

Social media campaign

In most cases, a concerted social media campaign and public anger have forced the Forest Department’s hand in deciding to capture the elephant. “This is similar to what happens when there is any problem elephant, especially in the conflict-prone area of Gudalur,” said a forest official who worked in the division.

“Elephants are complex animals, and in a majority of cases, problematic interactions are contextual. When a decision is taken to capture an animal, it is most likely not driven by an impartial assessment of the situation or of the animal in question, but based on public opinion,” he said, adding that it was not a coincidence that ‘Shankar’ was captured just a few weeks before the State elections.

“We must remember that there are established protocols that are used to come to a decision when capturing a wild elephant. In most cases, only an elephant known to have killed people or a habitual crop-raider is captured. But with the ambit of capture operations ever-widening, even abandoned calves and injured animals, which should be left in the wild for nature to take its course, are being brought to the camp and raised,” he added.

Impact on local ecology

An elephant requires 250 kg of cut fodder from the forest, and the financial burden of maintaining an elephant exceeds well over ₹12 lakh a year, according to Forest Department officials. With such a high demand for fodder, conservationists believe that there has been a gradual degradation of the habitat in the immediate vicinity of the camp.

“The impact of cutting huge quantities of fodder from the forest has a knock-on effect on other species of wildlife and on the native flora. In the areas surrounding the camp, there is a massive loss of forest cover, as seen in satellite images,” said Nilgiris-based conservationist N. Mohanraj.

Conservationists said that it was important to take into account the ecological cost of capturing an elephant. “Each elephant that is taken care of in Theppakadu means that there is lesser amount of fodder available for wild elephants using the reserve. Then there are the costs of maintaining the animal, which could be better spent on other areas of management and conservation,” said Mr. Mohanraj. He believed that the Forest Department should experiment with treating and releasing injured elephants if the situation required, rather than keeping them captive permanently .

Conservation biologist A.J.T. Johnsingh said that the habitat around forests surrounding Theppakadu had over the decades witnessed a tremendous amount of degradation. “The elephant camp is in a barren landscape, which should not be the case and the elephants should live in a grove. I have been visiting The Mudumalai Tiger Reserve since the early 1970s, [then it was only a sanctuary] and there is very little regeneration of edible plant species in the forests,” said Mr. Johnsingh, adding that the reserve has an extremely high population of elephants, at around 2-3 elephants for every square km.

“I have given a list of tree species to the Forest Department that can be grown there to change the barren nature of the camp,” he said.

Complex question

Tarsh Thekaekara, co-founder of the Shola Trust, an organisation that works with the Forest Department to monitor herds in the Gudalur landscape, said that the question of which elephants to capture was extremely complex.

“I feel that people take three ideological positions when the question of capturing an elephant arises. One is that capturing an elephant is not justified under any circumstance. The second position being that the removal of one or few elephants from a landscape means an overall benefit for other elephants and wildlife in the region, and the third, slightly-more pragmatic position being that periodic capture of problem elephants is natural because our elephant populations have been steadily increasing across the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve over the last few decades. All three of these ideological positions have their pros and cons and the question of capturing an elephant, when it arises, needs to be considered on a case-by-case basis,” said Mr. Thekaekara.

When contacted, K.K. Kaushal, Field Director of Mudumalai Tiger Reserve (MTR), said that the decision to capture a wild elephant was taken by the Chief Wildlife Warden based on reports from local officers who took into account a number of factors when asked to give their opinions on whether to capture an elephant or not.

“The problem is that when a decision is taken, either to capture an animal or not, there will always be a section of people who will be dissatisfied with the decision. For instance, in the case of Rivaldo, there was opposition from activists to capture the elephant and treat it for injuries, while a number of activists have been calling for the capture of the Gudalur elephant so that it can be treated,” said Mr. Kaushal.


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Printable version | Jul 24, 2021 11:47:11 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/tamil-nadu/crowded-theppakadu-camp-raises-questions-on-protocols-to-capture-wild-elephants/article34827483.ece

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