14 elephants die in Coimbatore forests in 2020: Experts point to several factors

While infighting and starvation have led to elephant deaths in the corridor, activists also point to a lack of infrastructure to treat injured pachyderms in Tamil Nadu’s forest department.
Coimbatore elephant deaths
Coimbatore elephant deaths

Forest department officials arrested two brothers this week for gunning down a female wild elephant in their agricultural field near Mettupalayam in Tamil Nadu. The 35-year-old pachyderm had been shot in the left ear with a country-made rifle, possibly after it entered the field. The lead pellet, which pierced her brain, was later removed during the autopsy.

The incident took place near Coimbatore’s forest division, where 14 wild elephants have already died this year.

TNM spoke to forest officials and an elephant conservationist in Tamil Nadu to understand this spike in elephant deaths in the Coimbatore forest division, which is part of a larger elephant corridor.

According to available data, 127 elephants have died in the Coimbatore division between 2011 and 2019. This means that an average of 14 elephants die in a year in the division. However, from January 2020 to date, at least 14 elephants have already died in this division.

“The number is a little above average, but not too high,” a senior official from the Coimbatore forest division told TNM. He explained that over the last 10 years, the pattern of elephants’ death has been consistent — it peaked during the summer season and slowly waned as the year ended.

“This is due to obvious reasons like lack of enough vegetation inside the forests and water. However, this is not a cause for concern. There have been years in the past when the annual elephant deaths have been as high as 22,” he explained.

The senior official added that after two more elephants died in the last two days in the Coimbatore forest range, the Chief Wildlife Warden has set up a special committee with experts like Shekhar Kumar Niraj of the Advanced Institute of Wildlife Conservation (AIWC) and Ajay Desai, Elephant expert and consultant to World Wildlife Fund (WWF-India).

“This committee will study the causes and reasons behind the deaths of elephants in the region and submit a report with their recommendations. These are issues that must be approached scientifically,” he said.

Elephants attracted to crops

According to elephant conservationist N Sadiq Ali, elephants are often shot at or scared away by farmers when they enter the fields near the border areas.

These human-animal conflicts and deaths are mainly reported from the Sirumugai forest range in the Coimbatore forest division, where farmers cultivate near dried water bodies or forest-bordering land leased out by the Public Works Department.

“Most of the farmers cultivate crops such as bananas or corn, which the elephants find attractive. This naturally lures wild elephants to the field and results in the human-animal conflict. In some cases, the elephants get entangled in an electrified fence set up by the farmers,” he says.

Even with the Mettupalayam elephant death, the accused farmers G Ramasamy, 55, and his brother G Krishnasamy, 66, cultivated their crop on a piece of land at Kandiyoor, which was leased out to them by the PWD.

Some of the forest fringe areas leased out by the PWD are water bodies, Sadiq adds. “Wild animals need water to survive in the forest and therefore, it is common for the elephants to come to the borders in search of water, resulting in deaths like the one witnessed in Mettupalayam.”

Speaking to TNM, a wildlife expert from Tamil Nadu said, “If you look at the recent deaths, many of them occurred in the Public Works Department area bordering the forests. In the Bhavani Sagar Reservoir backwater area, which is a PWD land, farmers have been cultivating seasonal crops for decades now. On the western side of Bhavani river, is the forest and the Eastern banks are cultivated with a patch of forest still remaining. During the summer months, 150-200 elephants routinely cross and come to the eastern banks. When they cross back, disruption in the form of crop damage takes place.”

Lack of infrastructure

According to experts, the Tamil Nadu forest department’s lack of infrastructure and manpower is also a pressing concern as it hinders effective treatment for the injured animals.

Coimbatore forest division has just one veterinary officer, who is in charge of conducting post-mortems on animals and attending to animals that are injured. The veterinary officer, who is deputed to the forest department from the department of animal husbandry, usually seeks the assistance of two or three surgeons on a case-by-case basis.

“This officer also visits neighbouring ranges of Masinagudi and other areas as there are no permanent officers there. Although only one veterinary officer is required for a forest division, there are no permanent veterinary doctors in many of the other divisions. Apart from manpower, a full-fledged veterinary clinic with medical equipment and animal handlers to tend to the wild animals is also a distant dream,” he adds.

According to the wildlife expert, there are no sweeping solutions for human-animal conflict. “This involves discussions and coordination between two departments (Forest and the PWD) and this will take time,” the expert said. 

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