Viewing elephants as rogue creatures in their own habitat is helping no one.

Tusker trouble Madukkarais elephants cope with the dangers of parched land and waning tree cover Madukkarai Maharaj's capture / PTI
news Man-animal conflict Sunday, August 14, 2016 - 16:28

Thirteen kilometres away from the subdued bustle of Coimbatore city, breaks between the medians of smooth roads come with a warning. Many from the neighbouring town of Anaikatti on the Palakkad border are no stranger to these elephant crossings, considering migratory season is around the corner.

But quiet hostility remains because many can never tell if the elephant is wild and enraged or tame and quick to cross. Some tuskers face the wrath of honking SUVs and some the pelting of stones by teenagers with shops on the wayside. 

In the middle of scores of medians, the forest ranges of Madukkarai are quietly tucked in. Enroute, we pass by forest officials doing their rounds. Flashing us a suspicious glance, they began to offer reassurances.  “No problem here," said an official when asked about the elephant situation. “That Maharaja rogue was the only pain, everyone here is happy," he barks, trying to shoo us away. 

The Maharaja rouge elephant, famously known as the Madukkarai Maharaja, had reportedly been frequently damaging crops in the area for the past three years and had killed two persons, including a forest watcher. The tusker was captured by doses of tranquiliser and three kumkis (trained elephants) from Topslip to haul him into a lorry. On the way to rehabilitation, he died. Reports of either overdose of their tranquiliser, or hitting his head in the lorry were doing the rounds in outrage posts, the shelf life of which was two days at best.

This is not the first. Many elephants had entered human habitation, located dangerously close as encroachments far into the corridor. The human habitation included workers from the nearby cement factory -  ACC cement, which had set shop a few years ago. These homes ranged from thatched huts and corrugated asbestos roofs to two storey buildings with winding staircases. All of them had one thing in common – a flourishing kitchen garden. 

Prakash, a labourer at the cement factory, lets his freshly harvested lady’s fingers get some sun, almost with affection. He puts aside a little, which his toddler son picks at. “These are for the elephants,” he says, fumbling as he finds his washcloth. “Sorry, I also need to fill the water tank and run to work, I’m already late.” The number of human habitation numbers have dropped from a good 100 families to 10-15 he says, because of the attacks by wild elephants. “You can get plots here for dirt cheap prices at 20-50 lakh rupees,” he explains.

His family lives in a tightly packed lime green home with a small balcony as a luxury and have found a way to deal with elephants that come down for water or food. A large tank of water for thirsty elephants, lush leafy green plants and greens – elephants joyously eat and drink, almost spoilt for choice. “They stopped barging into our house,” he says, adding, “They are happy and we are happy.” He waves us goodbye and sprints to work. 

Even deeper is Malar’s quaint little abode where she is investigating a set of ravaged tomato plants. Her produce has been trampled on and here chillies have browned in the heat. As both a protective shield and for cooking, Malar has stopped growing leafy greens around her house and put up an electric fence. 

“I want them to stop disturbing me,” she says, as her mother ‘tch tch’s her. Tomatoes and chillies are not a pet favourite among the elephant community. Unlike Prakash, Malar deems the animals a menace but staunchly stands by her method.  No water tank but instead an electric fence that often has a loose connection, she says. “I work, I take care of my family and am fending for my ailing mother,” she says sifting through her congested kitchen garden to pluck mint leaves for the day’s lunch.

But her mother cuts her short – “You can take care of me and deal with the elephants. They just want someone to give them food and water because they have none,” she says. In Malar’s approach, no one wins. At night, wild elephants perturbed by the chilli plants sometimes barge in through the fence and trample over the garden of deterrent plants. 

One thing is clear - Prakash, Malar and many other labourers who deal with the elephants on a daily basis receive little to no help from the Forest Department. All of this can possibly be attributed to the vicious cycle that deforestation has spawned. There has been a significant decrease in the green cover and vegetation, and the regular cycles of monsoon that have been interrupted. The Met Department had recently announced that northern and west Tamil Nadu will not receive the spate of the yearly south west monsoons.

Over the past month, the number of elephant deaths have been increasing, but the discourse around the incidents have never changed, and the measures are simply stopgap. Four elephants have already been killed in the first half of 2016 at Madukkarai after being hit by trains. As a measure, the Tamil Nadu Forest Department and the World Wild Fund for Nature (WWF) have installed around 20 cameras on trees and posts 5 to 10 metres away from the track to monitor the behaviour of elephants. Over 5,000 saplings have been built to increase tree cover. But if the trees want to match the tree cover that the area has lost, it’ll take a good 30 years. 

Mac Mohan, an activist and independent researcher says there’s no two ways about it – more data, accountability and an understanding of the topography of the habitat. “Many forest officials blame the increase in elephant population as the cause of these ‘attacks’. Well, what about the decrease in tree cover that is causing many to come down? 

There are two different views – the common man who has just settled down and says there were no elephants before. The government has a different view, that the elephant population has increased, but actual numbers compared to years ago actually shows a sharp decrease. “The methodology of collecting data is completely faulty, and the forest staff has very little knowledge and is almost incapable of handling it. When the forest areas reduce year after year, that affects their reproduction levels due to stress – so how can they increase?” There’s very little data to prove both Mac Mohan or the government’s claims. The last census of the region was conducted in 2004, thereby making it completely irrelevant to understand the current situation. 

On the way back to Coimbatore, a compound wall had been smashed and two pillars of disjointed brick stand in its place. The elephant had possibly stomped its way through the forest in search of food, only to be turned back. The faded yellow ruins of the wall are a telling memorial of what has ensued each night for the past three years.  While the elephants helplessly bear the brunt of the waning tree cover and parched land, the residents learn to live with the situation. The lack of documentation and the easy availability of land to industries has worsened the possibility of exercising any measures to protect the habitat and fix a broken ecosystem.

If only elephants could talk in a language humans understood.  

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