Tamil Nadu

Elephants take risky route to get to feeding grounds with native grass

The sight inspires both awe and trepidation — a massive tusker gingerly making his way down the steep Kotagiri slopes, where one single slip could lead to the massive animal falling hundreds of feet to a certain death.

Yet, the trek to the patches of grassland along the lower Nilgiris slopes has become a regular feature for a few elephants in the region, with conservationists wondering whether the observed behaviour is a sight that should be a cause for concern.

The photograph, which was taken by Jeswin Kingsly, Head Naturalist, Kipling Camp at the Kanha Tiger Reserve, shows a tusker clambering down an extremely steep section of the ghat to get to a patch of grassland.

Vasanth Bosco, a restoration ecologist based in the Nilgiris, said that the elephant was probably heading to the area to feed on a variety of grass belonging to the Cymbopogon family. “This grass, which is not an invasive species of flora but native to the landscape, is found in extremely steep rock-faces, around Geddai, Coonoor, Kotagiri and Ebbanadu,” said Mr. Bosco, who added that the grass, along with other native grass, would have once been found extensively across the Nilgiris and would have constituted a major part of the elephants’ diet.

However, with more lands being used for agriculture and being taken over by invasive weeds, such expanses of grassland continue to shrink each year, he said. The elephants’ behaviour, geared towards taking a huge risk to getting to a source of food could be a cause for concern, implying disturbances to their habit and a lack of food in their traditional feeding grounds, necessitating their expansion to new habitats, experts warn.

Over the last few years, there have been multiple reported instances where elephants have fallen to their deaths while navigating tricky, steep rock-faces, especially along the Coonoor ghat.

Tarsh Thekaekara, a conservationist from Shola Trust, who has worked extensively in documenting and protecting elephants in the Gudalur landscape, said that over the last decade, elephants have moved into new landscapes in the upper slopes of the Nilgiris. “In Gudalur, elephants have become a regular sight at Naduvattam and Frog Hill, where traditionally, they were rarely seen,” said Dr. Thekaekara, who added that multiple factors like changes to the hydrological profile of the landscape, spread of invasive flora, and loss of habitat due to expanding agricultural activities could be driving the change in their behaviour.

‘Not all bad news’

The change in behaviour of elephants might not be all bad news, said Jewsin Kingsly, the naturalist who has photographed the elephants in Kotagiri.

“Others too have noticed behaviour similar to that exhibited by the Kotagiri elephants in other parts of India and across the world, highlighting the fact that elephants are an extremely adaptable species,” said Mr. Kingsly.

He added that signs of adaptability among elephants were a good sign that the species can withstand the challenges it will face in the future.

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Printable version | Mar 1, 2021 7:10:38 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/tamil-nadu/elephants-take-risky-route-to-get-to-feeding-grounds-with-native-grass/article27429814.ece

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