On Tuesday morning, the carcass of a dead elephant was found at Gudalur forest in Tamil Nadu. Just a few days ago, a baby elephant in Bokkapuram was stuck in a sewage pit at a private resort and died before officials could rescue it. Over the past few months, Tamil Nadu has frequently witnessed a number of elephant deaths, instances of pachyderms entering fields and farmers’ homes in search of food and altercations with humans. There is, however, no official figure as to how many elephants have died in the recent past.
According to the Tamil Nadu Forest Department's estimate, the total number of elephants in the state stands at 2761. However, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change report on Synchronized Elephant Population Estimation says that these numbers for 2017 must be viewed with caution on account of the 'severe drought' in 2016. "The drought", the report says, "resulted in large numbers of elephants from Tamil Nadu moving into adjoining states with moister forests." The elephants re-entered the state only upon the onset of the monsoon later in the year.
Source: Synchronized Elephant Population Estimation India 2017
Seven years ago, in April 2011, the Madras High Court ordered the creation of an elephant corridor, asking resort owners in the area to hand over or vacate their lands falling within the corridor area to the district collector.
The notified elephant corridor is the traditional route of the elephant that it has traversed along for centuries. In Tamil Nadu, the route lies along over 7,500 hectares covering Gudalur, Oveli, Bokkapuram, Singara, Vazhaithottam, Singur, and Anaikatti. The Madras High Court mandated that no new developmental activity was to take place in this area.
The private landowners promptly applied for and received a stay on the order from the Supreme Court in July of the same year.
Lawyer and animal activist Elephant G Rajendran says, “The elephant’s abode is the forest where it has the food it needs. During the Northeast monsoons, the elephants migrate from Bandipur in Karnataka to Silent Valley in Kerala and Mudumalai in Tamil Nadu. During the Southwest monsoon, they reverse this journey. They travel along their traditional path which was historically rich forest cover. However, private resorts choose to operate in exactly these kinds of places. So, the elephants have lost their path.”
Lack of food
Over the past few months, reports and videos have surfaced of elephants entering homes of villagers and eating everything from plastic covers to food waste to batter from the kitchens. This sad state of affairs is owing to the lack of food in the depleting forest covered areas.
The animals have their own way of taking care of their food. Elephant G Rajendran says, “During the mating season between December 15 to the first week of January, an elephant consumes around 250 kg of food. But the total intake is only 40 kg. The rest is droppings. From these wet droppings, neem and gooseberry trees will sprout in the forest, which becomes food for the following year. But they don’t even have the food anymore. So, they die of starvation.”
Justifying their ‘natural behaviour’, Forest Range Officer S Kanthan, of the Singara Range in the Nilgiris says, “An elephant walks a minimum distance of 15 to 20 km per day. Sometimes it may change route and enter homes in villages. The forest land has become agricultural land. When the elephants try bananas or food item once, it gets used to the taste and smell, and it becomes addicted.”
The lack of rainfall in these areas has also been a major cause of death, say officials. Kanthan says “After 2012, only in 2017 did we have heavy rains. The drought causes intestinal worms so they fall sick. Sometimes, it may also be because the mother’s milk is not suitable for them. So, they die naturally.
In February last year, two elephants died of dehydration in Mudumalai, a reserved forest area.
The forest officials, however, are on the defensive. According to Kanthan, the deaths are the way of the jungle. He says, “Just like how we have a mortality rate for humans, elephants also die. They fall sick or die of natural causes. The post mortem confirms this. Life expectancy is low so average survival deaths will happen. All the elephants that have died, have done so naturally.
Kanthan adds, “Post mortems confirm that none of the deaths are because of lack of water or food. Nothing can be hidden. We have records for everything.”
What is the forest department doing?
The forest department, especially in Coimbatore district says that it has taken efforts to improve the situation.
Speaking to TNM, Coimbatore Conservator of Forests S Ramasubramaniam says that the forest department has taken efforts to reduce the number of deaths. He says, “The number of deaths is relatively low compared to two years before this. The elephant population has also gone up significantly. Yes, there is human habitation in the vicinity of the forest. So we do a lot of habitat improvement. We provide water inside the forest. Everyday, we supply freshwater to the water troughs. They are scattered across the range so that the elephants don’t need to venture out for water.”
Under the District Forest Officers, the team also has a rapid response team and an elephant hotline for villagers to call and inform the officials in case of any elephant sightings in the village. “Earlier the locals were angry with us. But now we’ve created a WhatsApp group so we can coordinate with them and drive the elephants back into the forests.”
The forest officials are also in agreement that the elephant corridor is immensely helpful for the creatures. Elephant G Rajendran is hoping for a positive outcome for the pachyderms on April 6 when the Supreme Court delivers its final verdict in the matter.
He concludes, “We are the ones who have taken their homes away from them and we are talking about being inconvenienced. Elephants too have a right to live.”