'Stray elephants are survivors of herd'

BANGALORE, JUNE 16. The two lone elephants wreaking havoc with standing crops in Talaguppa and Taralu village areas, bordering the Bannerghatta National Park, are survivors of a herd that was electrocuted last year, according to the Conservator of Forest, Mr. G.Vidyasagar, who is also the Director of the park.

He told The Hindu that the two tuskers were hovering around the area, which used to be a part of the elephant corridor through Hosur. Even though some elephants were electrocuted last year, measures were being taken to minimise crop loss to 142 villages in and around the Bannerghatta National Park, with over 100 hectares of farmland. Incidentally, 42 of these villages are within the park jurisdiction.

Pointing out that not a single elephant's death was reported in May (a study by the Institution for Natural Resources Conservation, Research and Training last year says 13 elephants died between January and May 2000), Mr. Vidyasagar said paying compensation to farmers who lost crops because of elephants was the least of the problems.

The number of wild elephants fell to 56 in 1993 and how to protect them in the park had become a major concern, Mr. Vidyasagar said.

The Forest Department spends about Rs. 15 lakhs a year on paying compensation to farmers for crop losses caused by elephants, and is fighting a slow battle to change the mindset of the people towards the benefits of conservation. Electric fencing of the park and digging trenches to keep stray cattle out and to confine the wild elephants to the park, is estimated to cost about Rs. 1.5 crores at the rate of Rs. 1 lakh per km of fencing.

There is a school of thought that suggests that as stakeholders, farmers and local communities could share the cost of these safety measures. It is pointed out that the crudely installed electric fences did more than scaring away the wild animals. Although it costs a little more, electric fencing manufactured by Suraksha and Ibex Callagher are safe, and give no more than a mild shock, which works on the ``once-bitten-twice-shy'' theme, keeping the animals at bay.

Mr. Vidyasagar said the department was toying with the idea of a ``joint venture'' with rich farmers. This would mean the Government and the community could share the cost of fencing. An insurance package covering crops, livestock as well as farmers and their labourers was in the offing, with the Government making commitment to pay the premium.

The INCERT study has pointed out that the elephant-human conflict had worsened over the years, upsetting the natural transition of elephants through the corridor and causing them to stray. Quarrying within the park is still a problem to reckon with, more than 40 mines were counted last year and grazing of at least 7,500 cattle within the park goes on in blatant violation of the provisions of the Wildlife Protection Act and the Supreme Court directives on the issue. Recently, about 50 acres of land was levelled to accommodate a bear enclosure, and the activity was enough to disturb the animals within the park.

Mr. Vidyasagar said illicit brewing of liquor was a thriving industry and even vigilant forest staff found it hard to spot the places within the park where the brewers did not even clean up.

INCERT has observed that elephants that came upon these leftovers have died. Often, it is too late to do anything to save them when they are found. Last year, the death of a young elephant was officially attributed to the consumption of a killer brew.