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One portion for elephants

Vrushal Pendharkar | Updated on February 23, 2018 Published on February 23, 2018

Sweet spot: The switch from ragi and paddy to cash crops such as sugar cane and banana, while proving to be financially rewarding, are also attracting elephants images: ma sriram   -  MA Sriram

The great divide: Farmers put in place a solar-powered fence to keep wildlife from entering their fields at Mangala village, on the border of Bandipur   -  MA Sriram

In the Nagarhole-Bandipur forest reserves in Karnataka, human-animal conflicts are on the rise. The majority opinion is now veering round to cohabitation and sharing of resources

At the western edge of Nagarhole national park in Mysuru district, Karnataka, the DB Kuppe village is situated in a clearing within otherwise continuous forests that extend all the way into Kerala.

After a rambunctious monsoon, the lush green paddy and ragi fields lend a gentle calm to the village. This calm, though, is regularly disturbed by elephants, the original inhabitants of the forestland on which the village now lies.

In the fields surrounding the Nagarhole and Bandipur national parks, villagers keep constant vigil over crops to drive away the invading wild boars, spotted deer, sambar and herds of elephants.

Swami, his wife, kids and his elderly mother were asleep in their mud hut when an elephant ambled through the village, nibbling on ragi here, snapping a banana tree there.

On hearing the commotion in the fields, Swami stepped outside to check. No sooner had he done so than the elephant, who was barely metres away, charged at him.

Swami managed to rush back inside just in time as the elephant smacked the roof with its trunk. The terracotta tiles came down like a pack of cards and one of them hit Swami’s wife on the head before the family could move to a safer place. The elephant didn’t break into the house but completely destroyed the narrow verandah. Swami caught a glimpse of its impressive long tusks as it stood on the steps momentarily. It then turned and melted into Nagarhole.

A breach in ancient pathways

Although elephants and humans have crossed paths even in the past in the forests of Nagarhole-Bandipur, it had largely remained an innocuous affair. In recent years, however, they have taken a toll on both humans and elephants alike.

Struggling to trace their ancient forest tracks that have now turned into a maze of cropland, village ponds, pockets of plantations and protected forests, the elephants frequently take refuge in agricultural fields to feed on crops. This juxtaposition of wildlife parks with large agricultural spaces corners the wildlife into either remaining within the park or outside into direct conflict with people, says Krithi Karanth, a scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).

Farmers endure not just financial losses but also mental stress and, in the odd case, even physical harm. In retaliation against the pachyderms, humans have dug trenches, erected solar fences and concrete walls, fired bullets and, in extreme cases, electrocuted them to keep them from their fields.

There are multiple reasons why elephants and humans are increasingly coming into contact in recent times. According to Karanth, the combination of high densities of wildlife and the fragmentation of their habitats is pushing out animals like elephants, which need a lot more space.

PM Muthanna, assistant director (conservation support) at WCS points to the change in cropping patterns as the one major change outside the park. Until 2000, the main crops grown were ragi and paddy. The switch to cash crops like sugar cane and banana, while proving to be financially rewarding, was also attracting elephants. The high financial stakes induce the farmers to protect the crop by all means, including electrocuting the elephants and throwing explosives at them.

A costly defence

Cash crops not only require higher investments but also more resources like water and fertilisers. Previously, fed by the monsoon, the local farmers cultivated one crop in a year. Now they grow multiple crops, irrigating the fields by pumping water from bore wells. “Earlier, when it was a six-month crop, if the elephants walked in after the harvest nobody used to be bothered,” says Muthanna.

With year-round crops, the animal-human conflicts are on the rise.

On top of this, Muthanna faults the conflict mitigation measures deployed by the forest department. The very measures intended to reduce interaction have ended up aggravating the situation in many places, he says.

From digging elephant protection trenches and erecting solar fences to constructing concrete walls, the department has tried several tricks to keep away the animals.

New additions include welding together rusty discarded railway tracks to form a wall that is sturdy enough to withstand the might of these giants. A more malevolent measure involves embedding nails in the concrete paths adjoining the park boundary.

Laxmiamma bursts into easy laughter, showing her two front teeth, as she recalls the hardships she faced when she settled in Nagapattna village back in 1975. She used to collect firewood, food and water from the forest next door.

The family’s fields were perpetually raided by wild denizens. This led to frequent skirmishes with the forest department.

It was only in the past year that elephants didn’t enter her fields, allowing Laxmiamma to reap a full harvest. With the help of Wild Seve, an organisation that enables households to lodge compensation claims and, in the process, build tolerance towards the animals, Laxmiamma had begun to register claims for her crop loss instead of fighting with the department. Since 2015, Wild Seve has filed 9,164 claims and assisted 3,035 families in receiving around ₹70 lakh in compensation. Noticing an increase in compensation demands from Nagapattna village, forest officials promptly surveyed the area. They then erected a fence, which stopped the elephants from entering Laxmiamma’s farms, but ended up diverting them into the neighbouring village.

The movement of elephants also varies seasonally and from area to area. “After December the elephant movement will increase outside the forests, as the grass starts to dry up there,” says Sharana Bassappa, the ranger of Mettikuppe area in Nagarhole. The food and water availability then determines the movement of the elephants.

Nagarhole and Bandipur are different from each other both in their character and in the way they support elephants. The land in Nagarhole is more fertile, better irrigated and has a high groundwater table, enabling farmers to grow crops through the year. Elephants are likely to visit the fields often for the easier pickings, which they probably find hard to resist.

The western parts of Nagarhole are covered with coffee plantations, providing cover for the elephants to move. “They have connectivity with Brahmapuri and Kerala forests, as opposed to the open land in Bandipur,” says Muthanna.

Inside the park, Nagarhole is moist as compared to the dry Bandipur vegetation. This has enabled better recovery of native vegetation from the clutches of the invasive lantana. The Mettikuppe-Vernasohalli area used to be covered with lantana, but the forest cover has now returned to it.

Such natural rejuvenation of areas is likely to provide more fodder for elephants.

There are other changes unfolding in the landscape that could potentially lower the number of elephant-human interactions. Until 2009, nearly three lakh cattle used to graze inside Bandipur. This has reduced to about 50,000, leaving more natural grass for the elephants to feed on.

Some farmers have also switched to growing forestry species like silver oak and neem to offset high agriculture and labour costs.

These patches serve as corridors through which elephants can reach other areas of the forests, thereby averting the need to trample through fields.

The great divide: Farmers put in place a solar-powered fence to keep wildlife from entering their fields at Mangala village, on the border of Bandipur   -  MA Sriram

 

Although the Nagarhole-Bandipur region has become a hotbed of animal-human conflict in recent times, it hasn’t seen violence towards the animals. In fact, the people have been tolerant, with even a sense of acceptance.

Despite the elephant damaging Swami’s house, he doesn’t want to take any retaliatory action — “we can let the animals eat something from our fields and hope they leave behind much of the crop” is how he chooses to make peace with the situation. Laxmiamma shares this view, even after her farm has been repeatedly raided by animals — “we respect the elephants and have never tried to harm them but only scare them off our fields”.

In a country like India, where animals not only share spaces with humans but are also closely knit with the people’s beliefs and emotions, perhaps peaceful cohabitation can be facilitated by appealing to these primeval sentiments.

Muthanna suggests there should be improved scientific research on elephants, and information on their movements should be communicated to the locals. He however thinks that, in the long run, “we have no power to control elephant movement”. He endorses quick and efficient compensation for crop loss and other damages.

“A day may come when people will sow ragi for elephants,” he prophesises.

Vrushal Pendharkar is a Bengaluru-based writer focussing on science and nature

Published on February 23, 2018
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