The Union govt is yet to release the 2020-21 funds for conservation of wild jumbos in Tamil Nadu. This has severely impacted elephant conservation efforts and resolving man-animal conflicts.

Two elephants lying lifeless on a patch of grass
news Environment Saturday, February 05, 2022 - 13:08

In 2021 alone, four wild elephants in Tamil Nadu were killed by moving trains. Over the last 43 years, at least 24 perfectly healthy jumbos have died on Tamil Nadu’s railway lines, after being hit by trains. While the Tamil Nadu Forest Department takes stock of the issue and plans measures to stop such deaths, the Centre has not disseminated any funds for the conservation of these pachyderms. 

An RTI response to Chennai based wildlife activist Antony Clement Rubin query on funds allocated for elephant conservation, shows that the Union government has not released any funds for wild elephant conservation in Tamil Nadu in 2020-2021. The Government usually releases a specific amount, as requested by the state, under ‘Project Elephant’ - a federally sponsored scheme for elephant conservation in different states. A quick look at the RTI response released on January 28  shows that the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) released no funds for the year 2020 - 2021. 

“When I was reading about the elephant deaths near Coimbatore, I wanted to know the rate of drop in the elephant population over the years and what the government was doing to stop it,” Rubin says.

“The funds were delayed because of the pandemic and then it was never released. But for 2021-2022, the MoEFCC has approved our proposal and has released 25% of the funds. But the fund crunch limits us from expanding conservation activities,” Dr Shekhar Kumar Niraj, Principal Chief Conservator of Forest (PCCF) and Chief Wildlife Warden (CWW) in Tamil Nadu told TNM. 

Screenshot of the RTI response on funds disbursed to states for elephant conservation

The funds under project elephant are disseminated partially by the Union and the state. It is split 60:40 with 60% of the funding given by the MoEFCC after the state government submits a proposal detailing utilisation of requested funds. “As it is, the wildlife department gets allocated very little funds. It is fund and resource starved. We need the funding to prevent forest fires by putting fire lines in forests, to carry out anti-poaching and anti-hunting measures in the forests (crime management),” Dr Shekhar says. 

Money has to be sent to the compensation (for payments of contract workers) and to track pathological infections. “We can carry out soil tests and water tests to understand climate and ecosystem changes only with funds. Further, to be able to test animal and carcass samples, carry out laboratory tests to detect cause of death and infections also require money,” Dr Shekhar says, adding that all these activities slow down when no money is available.

Elephants are crucial for the upkeep of forests. Studies have been conducted on how their dung helps forests grow, improving forest cover. To tackle the ever increasing problem of man-animal conflict, the forest department has to train resources, hire manpower, build infrastructure (surveillance and alarm systems) and upgrade existing infrastructure and improve technology. “Only this can help resolve the man-elephant conflict near the railway lines,” Rubin explains

Preventing elephant deaths on train tracks 

The Tamil Nadu forest department has planned an e-surveillance and alert system to prevent trains from hitting elephants.  “The proposal involves a pre-warning system which flashes alerts to the railway control room and in turn the loco-pilots, whenever an elephant approaches the tracks,” says Dr Shekhar.

However, this requires a lot of infrastructure building. The department will need drones, sensors, 360 degree cameras to record wild elephant movements. It will need to build watchtowers close to railway tracks, for surveillance from an elevation. “Currently we only have one dilapidated watchtower near Line B (which cuts through the forest range near Coimbatore) and nothing near Line A. It will take 1-2 years and some funds to upgrade and build more towers,” he says. The infrastructure has to be automated so that the control rooms receive automatic alerts. 

The department also needs more manpower, in the form of forest watchers. At the moment, the Coimbatore forest range near the two railway tracks which sees elephant deaths, has only five forest watchers.  “We want to allocate at least 25 watchers. We have to take them on a contract basis, give them field attire and a support system and train them to become forest watchers and track the wildlife movements around the railway lines,” Dr Shekhar explains.

The department has asked the Union Government for Rs 5.5 crore to be used over the next five years for Project Elephant. Funds will go towards sensitising local residents and also loco pilots and officials in the railways regarding wildlife migration, movements, patterns, climate and ecology and other factors connected with the railways and wildlife.