How thoughtless development is killing both elephants and people in Western India

The government is failing to implement recommendations by experts on mitigating deforestation and human-animal conflict.

In February, there was a sense of jubilation in the Sawantwadi area of Sindhudurg district in south western Maharashtra. A team of forest officials from the neighbouring state of Karnataka, invited by Maharashtra’s forest department, successfully captured three wild elephants that had trespassed into Maharashtra more than a decade ago and were causing serious crop damage in the area and inviting local people’s ire.

With the help of tamed elephants, the Karnataka team, headed by Nagarhole national park’s veterinarian, KS Umashankar, captured the first tusker, on February 9, followed by the second two days later. The third pachyderm was caught on February 15.

As soon as the mission was accomplished, congratulatory messages started pouring in from all quarters. “...capturing the animal is said to be best way to deal with the problem,” exalted Vinayak Raut, a member of parliament from the Sindhudurg-Ratnagiri constituency.

The Maharashtra government recommended that an award be given to the Karnataka team. Some top newspapers went overboard in celebrating the victory of forest officials. ‘A team from Karnataka has done the state proud by capturing three trouble-making tuskers in Maharashtra recently’ said one headline. ‘The capturing of these elephants is a major success for the forest departments of Maharashtra as well as Karnataka,’ said another.

Tragedy after triumph

The euphoria was short-lived. After being captured, the wild elephants were kept in a wooden enclosure known as a ‘kraal’, in the Amberi area of Mangaon tehsil in Sindhudurg. The summer heat, with temperatures going to 39 degrees C, the absence of a veterinary doctor, insensitive training and possible negligence by officials lead to the death of two elephants, Ganesh and Samarth. Ganesh died within days of being captured, whereas Samarth collapsed on April 10.

Ganesh had been captured once before, way back in 2009, by Maharashtra forest officials, and was released at the Maharashtra-Karnataka border so that he returned to its home state. However, within a few days he came back to Sawantwadi, only to be captured again recently and caged in a kraal and left to die, even though elephants are listed under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 and accorded the highest level of protection.

Photo: Vijay Nana Palkar

Since last December, the Maharashtra forest department was pursuing a plan to capture and domesticate wild elephants. The government sanctioned Rs 69 lakh for this project after receiving a green signal from the union environment ministry, according to a news report. MK Rao, chief conservator of territorial forests was quoted in another report as saying: “Once their [Karnataka’s] elephants and trainers arrive, we can start implementing a plan of domestication.” The expert team arrived in February, captured three wild elephants within a week; two are already dead and the third one is getting domesticated.

“Bhim is in good condition and responding well to the mahout. For the time being, he will stay in Maharashtra,” Rakesh Kumar, deputy conservator of forests of Kolhapur division, under which Sindhudurg falls, told However, wildlife experts differ.

Photo: Vijay Nana Palkar

“If domesticating wild elephants were so easy, then Ganesh and Samarth would not have died. Elephants are highly emotional animals and deserve better treatment than being constricted in a kraal,” said Anand Shinde, a Mumbai-based expert on elephants, who is doing a project on elephant conservation with the Kerala forest department.

No official wants to speak about the death of the captured elephants, but Vijay Palkar, a local journalist from Mangaon in Sindhudurg, said Ganesh had died from a heart attack, whereas Samarth had died because of ill-treatment and harsh training. “Now, only 40-year-old Bhim is left, who is being trained with the help of Laxmi, a tamed female elephant from Karnataka. The entire procedure is being overseen by officials from Karnataka because Maharashtra state forest officials have no training and no 24x7 veterinary doctor to handle wild elephants,” said Palkar, who has been following human-elephant conflict in the region for more than a decade.

Domesticating a wild elephant in Sindhudurg district
Video: Vijay Nana Palkar 

Elephant movement

Until about 2002, there were no resident wild Asian elephants in Maharashtra. Wildlife researchers have documented that during the 1970s, Uttara Kannada district of Karnataka had five herds with a total of about 130 elephants. They roamed in fragmented forests, raiding crops and getting persecuted by local farmers. By 1980, most of these elephants had been shot dead by locals, leaving only two isolated herds with very few elephants.

From 1997, these elephants started moving northward in search of thick forests and food. In 2001, they reached Khanapur in Belgaum district of Karnataka, which abuts Maharashtra’s southernmost border. In November 2002, a group of seven wild elephants entered Mangeli village of Sindhudurg district in southern Maharashtra.

After staying in Maharashtra for two weeks, they went back to Karnataka. However, a group of 11 returned the next April by the same route, using their famous elephantine memory. Throughout that year there were to-and-fro movements of elephants in the area. It was in 2004 and 2005 that the elephants extended their range to enter the state of Goa and Sawantwadi taluka in Sindhudurg district of Maharashtra, according to a 2013 research paper, Past, Present and Future of Wild Elephants in Maharashtra, India, by Prachi Mehta and Jayant Kulkarni of the Pune-based Wildlife Research and Conservation Society.

In November 2004, the Maharashtra forest department launched an operation to drive out 16 elephants, but four refused to go to Karnataka. Meanwhile, in the same month, another seven elephants from Karnataka entered Chandgad range of Kolhapur district in Maharashtra. They left the next day, but returned again in February 2005.

“By 2007, the elephants had consolidated their range in Maharashtra and had settled in Kudal range of Sindhudurg district, and in the Chandgad and Ajra ranges of Kolhapur district. Gradually the elephants discovered other routes for moving between Kolhapur and Sindhudurg districts,” says the 2013 research paper.

Development and deforestation

There is a strong reason for elephants to move northward from Karnataka into the neighbouring states of Maharashtra and Goa. Until 1990, wild elephants had a safe place in the Dandeli Wildlife Sanctuary in Karnataka but they started moving out after the construction of the Kali hydroelectric project, says Wildlife Trust of India's 2006 report.

“It is important to look at the issue on a landscape scale, considering that the forested areas of Karnataka, Maharashtra and Goa are part of the larger Western Ghats ecosystem,” the report says. Between 1944 and 1990, six dams were constructed in Uttara Kannada district of Karnataka, thereby reducing forest land and fracturing the habitat of elephants, according to a report on

In sharp contrast, Sawantwadi and Dodamarg talukas of Maharashtra have a good swathe of forests and nutritious food for elephants in the form of crops such as banana, paddy, sugar cane and coconut. The region also has the Tillari and Jangamhatti reservoirs, which are a big source of water for the tuskers.

“Compared with Karnataka, southern Maharashtra has good forests, which is why elephants have come here. They easily get nutritious food in Sawantwadi, but a lot of crop is damaged and local farmers suffer,” says Kumar, who claims his department has taken several preventive measures, such as setting up patrol teams, building elephant proof trenches and solar fencing, and educating villagers.

However, independent surveys have found that the trenches and solar fencing are poorly maintained and were ineffective in controlling elephant movement. The forest department has also repeatedly tried capturing and translocating elephants without success. During one exercise, in 2009, four elephants were captured, but two died during the operation, one of which was a juvenile with previous injuries. The remaining two were released near Kankumbhi in Karnataka, about 100 km from the place where they were captured. But both elephants returned to the same region within a week.

“Elephants do not understand state boundaries and move around in search of food and habitat. The latter has been destroyed by encroachment on forest land and increased human activity,” said Prachi Mehta of the Pune-based organisation. “Elephants have died both in Karnataka and Maharashtra during capture and translocation procedures. Keeping wild elephants in camps makes little sense, as these camps are poorly maintained without any trained veterinarians and mahouts.”

Cost of conflict

The human-elephant conflict in southern Maharashtra has already claimed the lives of 13 villagers and 11 elephants. Some researchers claim 13 elephants have died between 2002 and 2010. Apart from this, the forest department has paid huge compensation for damage and casualties. Between 2002 and 2013, Sindhudurg district recorded 6,946 cases of crop depredation by elephants, for which the state forest department has paid a total ex-gratia payment of Rs 82 million. The figure for Kolhapur district is 3,254 cases of crop depredation and compensation of Rs 8.14 million. These figures come from a report titled Action Plan for the Management of Elephants in Maharashtra 2012-13 to 2016-17, prepared by the Wildlife Research and Conservation Society's for the state forest department.

In Kolhapur, 57 percent of the crop damage is to sugar cane, whereas in Sindhudurg the maximum crop damage is to coconut, at 30 percent. Other affected crops are bananas, cashew nuts, finger millet, paddy, jackfruit, bamboo and betel nut, the report says.

Wildlife experts believe that when the entire responsibility of resolving the conflict falls on the government, the results are poor. But the Society's report, which offers alternatives, is gathering dust.

Similarly, in September 2012, a 13-member task force appointed by the Karnataka High Court made strong recommendations about how to tackle human-elephant conflict. These included the creation of an elephant conservation zone, an elephant-human co-existence zone and an elephant removal zone; the prevention of commercial infrastructure projects near elephant corridors; the reviewing of permissions granted to mini-hydel projects in elephant reserves; etc. However, these recommendations have not been implemented. For successful conflict resolution, decentralisation of responsibilities and empowerment of local villagers is imperative.

Community-based solutions

“Rather than making villagers and farmers totally dependent on forest officials to protect their crops from elephants, it is important to initiate community-based conflict management by introducing low-cost and simple crop protection measures. Van Sanrakshan Samitis [forest protection groups] can be roped in for these mitigation efforts,” said Mehta.

Her organisation has been implementing such a project for the past five years, on the fringes of the Dandeli reserve in Karnataka, where more than 300 villagers are actively involved in human-elephant conflict resolution. Her organisation recently published a do-it-yourself guide on crop protection titled Sharing Space with Elephants, which recommends simple measures that farmers can adopt to protect themselves and their crops from elephants: guarding at night from a tree watchtower, setting up a trip alarm, introducing chilly and tobacco deterrents, using catapult crackers and swinging fire balls, and erecting a bee-hive fence.

Shinde, the Mumbai-based expert on elephants, has also sent a proposal to the Maharashtra government to set aside about 100 acres of land in Sawantwadi for an elephant reserve. “Maharashtra has only 10 elephants [though some people claim that only six or seven remain], which we can try and contain within a designated forest area. The reserve can be fenced off and the forest department can ensure there is no encroachment on it,” he said. Another group of researchers has used remote-sensing to prepare a 14,440-hectare map of elephant-suitable habitat in Chandgad and Aajra tehsil of Kolhapur.

Various other agencies, including non-profit groups, are also coming together to mitigate the growing human-animal conflict in the country. This May, Bengaluru-based Ashirvadam tied up with three organisations ‒ WWF-India, The Asian Nature Conservation Foundation and A Rocha ‒ to launch a research and monitoring project to reduce human-elephant conflict.

“The three agencies will document the conflict in three different regions and study various mitigation techniques, such as fencing, setting up an early alarm system and documenting elephant behaviour. Based on the reports, we will initiate a dialogue with the concerned authorities to mitigate the growing conflict,” sad Gagan Pathik, CEO of Ashirvadam.

Problem to intensify

The government, both the Centre and the states, is, however, yet to understand the gravity of the conflict, which is set to increase. The Karnataka government is brazenly promoting infrastructure projects that directly threaten existing elephant reserves and elephant corridors. For instance, the proposed Mekedatu reservoir project along the Cauvery in Kanakpura taluka of Ramanagaram will submerge 2,500 acres of forest land and cut through the elephant corridor in Hassan. The Yettinahole Integrated Drinking Water Project is set to disturb another elephant corridor.

The situation is no better in Maharashtra. In Dodamarg range of Sindhudurg, local people are selling private forest land and farm land to plantation owners in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The latter are clearing forests and planting palm oil, rubber, coconut and banana. Community forests known as kumri are also being converted into plantations. This will further fragment forests in southern Maharashtra and increase human-elephant conflict, experts say.

Nidhi Jamwal is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist who reports on the environment. Her Twitter handle is @JamwalNidhi.

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