Corridors for free movement of elephants in Valparai plateau will prevent human deaths, says study

RIGHT OF PASSAGE: Wild elephants enter tea estates in the Valparai plateau as they move from one forest patch to another in Coimbatore district. Photo: M. Ananda Kumar   | Photo Credit: M_ANANDA KUMAR

Human-elephant conflicts (HECs) have been in the news for the past several months. The gravity of the conflict came under the spotlight on June 9 when two elephants entered Mysore town from nearby forests and a spectacle unfolded as hundreds of people ran after the younger tusker, which trampled to death a guard at an ATM kiosk.

On July 31, a herd got trapped between the railway track and a national highway in the area between Reti and Moraghat forests in West Bengal, the area being an elephant corridor. On June 4 and July 10, L. Sivalingam and R. Velu lost their lives in two separate accidental encounters with elephants at Pudukkadu and Nadukani in the Nilgiris district, Tamil Nadu. In the Coimbatore Forest Division, which is distinct from Coimbatore district, about 70 persons died in HECs between 2001 and 2011. In the Valparai plateau, about 110 km from Coimbatore, 36 people have lost their lives since 1994 in encounters with elephants. Twenty-six of them perished in the encounters that took place on the network of roads within the tea estates in the plateau.

At the crux of the HECs are the elephant corridors, which are passages that elephants use to migrate from one forest to another. “In Coimbatore district alone, 58 villages have been affected by the problem (HECs). The issue is the corridor,” said a Forest Department officer. The Wildlife Trust of India, in a study entitled, “Right of Passage, Elephant Corridors of India,” has identified 88 elephant corridors as “being currently in use in the country.” Of them, 20 are in southern India.

However, in the Coimbatore Forest Division at the foot of the Western Ghats, which is an important conservation area for the elephants in India, about 20 institutions have come up on the elephants' migratory corridor, blocking their passage. According to the Forest Department officials, these institutions include Amritha Vishwa Vidyapeeth University, Karunya University, Isha Yoga Centre, Karl Kubel Institute for Development Education, the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History, Isha Yoga Centre, Tamil Nadu Agricultural University's Forest College and Research Institute, a CRPF training centre, and private schools and engineering colleges. Besides, 190 brick kilns have mushroomed in the Thadagam valley, which is an elephant migratory corridor, at the foot of the Western Ghats, near Coimbatore.

In the decades before Independence, the British planters destroyed 72 per cent of the thick rain forests that covered the 220 sq. km. Valparai plateau and converted the area into tea estates. So the elephants not only permanently lost their home ranges but their migratory corridors. When the forests were destroyed and converted into tea estates, the streams flowing through them degenerated into swamps. There are forest patches within these estates, and it is when the elephants move from one forest patch to another within the estates that the HECs occur.

Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF), Mysore, which has been studying the HECs in the Valparai plateau for the past 10 years, has, therefore, suggested establishment of connectivity with native vegetation from one forest patch to another along the swamps.

“This will really help the elephants' passage from one forest patch to another and there will be less encounters,” said M. Ananda Kumar, wildlife scientist, NCF, who has been studying the HECs in the plateau. “It will increase the flow of water and help the tea. The tea companies need to show interest in this because they are the stakeholders,” he said.

The NCF has made this recommendation in a report it submitted to the Tamil Nadu Forest Department (Anamalai Tiger Reserve-ATR) in June 2011. The report — “Elephant Corridors in the Anamalai Tiger Reserve” — was prepared by Dr. Ananda Kumar, T.R. Shankar Raman and Divya Mudappa, all belonging to the NCF.

The report says that the Valparai plateau occupies “a unique geographical location in the Anamalai Hills” of the Western Ghats, adjoining the ATR. The plateau's gently undulating terrain lends itself for easy movement of elephants from one forest patch to another within the tea estates, leading to the HECs.

Research done by the NCF has identified two crucial places which need to be developed as corridors for the movement of elephants, which will minimise the HECs.

The NCF has suggested that the Ryan Division of the Tamil Nadu Tea Plantation Corporation (TANTEA) in the plateau be brought under the ATR to develop an elephant corridor.

Critical area

For the Ryan Division has been “a hot-bed” of the HECs, with 25 per cent of human deaths (nine of 36 people killed between 1994 and 2011) occurring in an area occupying less than two per cent of the Valparai plantation landscape. Dr. Ananda Kumar called the Ryan Division “a critical area.”

The report asserted that “in the long run, it is important to secure the Ryan Division area, which is currently fragmenting the ATR and disrupting an important elephant movement route. Steps may be initiated to incorporate the entire area within the ATR to develop an elephant corridor.”

It has recommended that the Nadu Aru-Sholayar riverine system, which runs through the plateau, be developed with native vegetation for elephants' passage. Research has indicated that the vegetation along this riverine system has been critical for elephant movement, besides providing them with food and water.

Dr. Ananda Kumar suggested development of native vegetation, with the involvement of tea companies, over a width of 20 metres on either side of the rivers to facilitate elephants' passage more than halfway through the plantations into the ATR. This will minimise the negative interaction between tea estate workers and the elephants.

Local support

The report emphasised that “garnering local support from plantation owners and local people is very important for elephant conservation in the Valparai landscape.”

It suggested that the Tamil Nadu government's /Forest Department should set up a “Valparai Corridor Council” involving tea companies, The Forest Department personnel, municipal councillors and conservation organisations should meet once in three months to arrive at conservation solutions including minimising the HECs.

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