Human-elephant conflict is an oft-heard word in Coimbatore and the resultant man-animal death is quite a common occurrence, as the city is on the foothills of the thickly-forested Western Ghats. Whenever a wild elephant strays into human habitation that is an erstwhile corridor, the normal course of action is to guide it back into the forest, or reunite it with its herd. But there has never been an instance or even the faintest suggestion of securing the elephant corridor by acquiring that land and relocating villages.
It is this âright of passageâ that would help conserve elephants among a billion people and will be the most effective solution to end the human-elephant conflict, according to conservation biologist Vivek Menon, who has witnessed the successful reclaiming of eight such corridors in Kerala, Assam, Uttarakhand, Meghalaya and Karnataka at the cost of Rs. 80 crore.
As the Executive Director and CEO of Wildlife Trust of India (WTI), and the Chairperson of the Asian Elephant Specialist Group, Menon expects WTI to secure at least 22 of the 101 elephant corridors in India in the near future at an estimated budget of Rs. 200 crore. Some corridors in the Western Ghats also figure in the planned 22.
WTI has had several success stories over the years, having executed plans to conserve elephant habitats across India, and their premise has been to understand âthe crushing reality that the animal was large, social, intelligent, and a nomad, and has to co-exist with one-third of the world poor that constituted Indiaâ.
He says, âMan-animal conflict happens when humans forget to acknowledge these traits. The elephant is large, hence needs lot of food and water; it is social, hence needs to live in a herd and cannot be isolated; it is intelligent and shares similar neurobiological functions as a human; and as a nomad it needs to roam or move and cannot be settled,â said Menon at a recent talk in Coimbatore.
One of the success stories was the process of securing the Tirunelli-Kudrakote elephant corridor in Wayanad, Kerala, where five villages were relocated and 9.2 acres of land was acquired over a period of 12 years.
An important aspect of the WTIâs understanding of elephant conservation is that it has to be different from that of the West because of the ethical, religious and spiritual implications. âWe either think of it as Ganesh when we revere it or as Shaithan when there is a human casualty. We should start looking at it as a mere elephant and remember that conflict does not result only in human death, there are elephant casualties too,â he points out.
In 2015, India saw 456 human deaths due to elephants, as against the four or five in Africa. But Menon also points out that 124 elephants have died only of train hits since 1989.
WTI has been trying for several years to reduce elephant deaths due to train hits. Six years ago, they had submitted some recommendations to the Indian Railways. âIf they had been effectively used, then such deaths, including the ones on the Palakkad-Coimbatore stretch, could have been avoided,â he says.
âYou cannot slow down a train easily and no engine driver wants to intentionally hit an elephant. You have to find other engineering mechanisms and animal detection systems to end elephant deaths on tracks,â he adds.
Coming out strongly against exploitation of elephants, which is in vogue since 1950s, the conservationist also condemns the misuse of nearly 10,000 of them held in captivity in Asian temples. He says that social change was the solution to ensuring a secure future for such elephants.
Some of the success stories in conservation included putting back 67 elephants in their original habitat, rehabilitating 15, reuniting some with the natal herd (why take them to zoos?).
Another interesting success story is how WTI was able to remove Manas Wildlife Sanctuary in Assam from the UNESCOâs list of âWorld Heritage Sites in Dangerâ by not only tripling its size but also replenishing many of its endangered species.
Human-elephant conflict can be overcome with the availability of land and the involvement of locals, because they could change things for better or worse.