Hours after being captured by a team of 50 forest department personnel and transported to the Anamalai Tiger Reserve on Sunday, a 20-year-old elephant nicknamed Encounter died. The cause of death, according to Tamil Nadu Forest Department officials, was an overdose of anaesthesia.

Encounter had been caught at the end a week-long hunt after destroying crops in Madukkarai, Coimbatore, and is thought to have been responsible for trampling a forest guard to death last year. While details are sketchy, officials in the medical team that captured the elephant had been reluctant to tranquilise the animal.

"We said that this elephant could be easily driven back into the forests," said a member of the medical team who did not wish to be identified. "But the forest department officials were insistent that the elephant be captured. The elephant may have been stressed due to the chase and capture. Tranquilised elephants need a lot of water as the body temperature rises. We are not sure whether the elephant was cared for properly once it reached Anamalai."

Wildlife activists are furious. "The forest department is entirely responsible for this avoidable death," said John Abraham, wildlife photographer and activist. "There was no need to tranquilise the elephant. Once the rains had come, the elephant would have gone back into the forest and rejoined its herd. Forest department has to answer for this," he said.

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Tamil Nadu’s principal chief conservator of forests and chief wildlife warden had come in for criticism almost as soon as he issued issued an order on June 8 giving his Coimbatore circle officials the green signal to capture and relocate Encounter.

“The capture and translocation of this elephant shall be made by tranquilization so as to cause minimum trauma to the elephant," he said. "The entire operation shall be carried out meticulously under the expert supervision of trained and experienced Forest Veterinarians and the captured elephant be taken to the Elephant camp at Anamalai Tiger Reserve for further management.”

But wildlife activists said this as a knee-jerk reaction by forest department officials and wasn't a long-term solution.

Wildlife activist Mohan Raj recounted how two years ago, the forest department caught six elephants in Tiruvannamalai and caged them, adding that forest department officials were still feeding the captured animals. “Caging and feeding elephants is not the job of forest officials,” said Raj. “Elephants help in seed propagation, they also help make paths for smaller animals. That is nature. To leave the elephants in their natural habitat is the best. Tranquilising elephants which come into town and caging them is not the solution and this will leave the forests without any elephants.”

A wild elephant entering a village in Valparai in Coimbatore district. (Photo credit: Sridhar Vijayakrishnan).
A wild elephant entering a village in Valparai in Coimbatore district. (Photo credit: Sridhar Vijayakrishnan).

Elephant-human conflict in Tamil Nadu is not unusual. Between June and September, elephants and humans frequently clash in hilly areas. In the plains, such encounters occur between January an early June, when the tuskers come down from the forests in search of water and food.

A home destroyed by elephants in search of food. (Photo credit: Ganesh Raghunathan).
A home destroyed by elephants in search of food. (Photo credit: Ganesh Raghunathan).

Although there is no official data of the number of attacks, activists tracking these encounters say that there are three to four human fatalities on average each year in hill stations like Gudalur and Bandalur in the Nilgiris in western Tamil Nadu. On an average, there are two elephant fatalities in these areas as well, mainly due to electrocution by electric fencing. In the past two months alone, two elephants have died in Mettupalayam and Gudalur. In the plains, human deaths average between one and two annually, although injuries due to elephant attacks are five to six times more frequent.

Elephants near human habitation in Valparai. (Photo credit: Ganesh Raghunathan).
Elephants near human habitation in Valparai. (Photo credit: Ganesh Raghunathan).

A novel solution

A hundred kilometers away from Madukkarai, in hilly Valparai – another area in Coimbatore district that is famous for wild elephants – a novel experiment to resolve the elephant-human conflict started about 14 years ago appears to be paying dividends.

Valparai is tea country. There are at least seven major tea cultivators here including Tata Tea, Parry Agro, Bombay Burma Trading Corporation – all of which have sprawling estates.

These companies faced a problem with tuskers that were killing their estate workers and also damaging their plantations.

“In 2002, one private tea company management approached my senior for help,” said Ganesh Raghunathan of the Nature Conservation Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation specialising in conservation. “We had initially come to Valparai to do a study on monkeys. When this request came to us, we decided to study the causes and nature of the elephant-human conflict.”

The NGO began a two-year study, during which conservationists recorded the habits and movements of elephants in Valparai. “Back then we learnt our first basic lesson about elephants,” continued Raghunathan. “One cannot completely prohibit elephants from coming into the area. The elephants have been using these paths for centuries, and it is only recently that man has come into the path of these animals.”

The team realised that elephants and humans simply had to co-exist peacefully – the mammoth problem could not be wished away. Electric fences and trenches dug at the edges of forests by the government in the 1970s to keep elephants out of towns had not worked. The main cause for fatalities in Valparai was because humans, who were not aware of the herd’s presence in the area, surprised the tuskers and got too close.

“So we got several teams to locate the places where elephant movement was reported,” said Raghunathan. “If the elephants were near human habitations, we would inform the respective tea estate managements and warn the locals too. We then figured, why not spread this information to more people so they would be warned? We began telecasting the location and movements of elephants on the local cable television channels.”

SMS alerts are sent to mobiles in Valparai about the movement of elephant herds. (Photo credit: Ganesh Raghunathan)
SMS alerts are sent to mobiles in Valparai about the movement of elephant herds. (Photo credit: Ganesh Raghunathan)

The next step was to involve the state Forest Department and locals using the mobile network through which residents would be informed by SMS if elephants were in their area. For those who had no mobiles, 27 early warning towers were set up. If a red light went on in these towers, it meant that elephants were within a one kilometer radius. “We have made these towers operable by mobile phones, and we light up towers using the cellphone itself,” said Raghunathan.

The Early Warning System tower lights up in red when elephants are within a one-kilometre radius in Valparai. (Photo credit: Aneesh).
The Early Warning System tower lights up in red when elephants are within a one-kilometre radius in Valparai. (Photo credit: Aneesh).

Joining hands

The movement of elephants is also announced in buses which ply between Valparai town and its suburbs so that people can take precautions. The state Forest Department and the State Road Transport Corporation have collaborated to enable this move.

“Before we installed these systems, there used to be three to five people being killed by elephants every year but now there is just one death in a year,” said Raghunathan. “We can easily introduce this system in areas where there is elephant-human conflict. Being forewarned about elephant movements can prevent human deaths.”

Other small measures too have gone a long way in helping reduce attacks by elephants. Ration shops, for instance, do not store sacks of rice any longer in Valparai. This is because the elephants, lured by the rice, would attack and destroy these shops.

These measures have not only helped residents stay safe, but have had an unusual pay-off. “For the locals, these announcements are like a warning, but at the same time this has become an advantage for tourists,” said Selvaganapathy, a resident of Valparai. “People who come to Valparai for tourism want to see wild animals. These warnings have made it easy for local guides to take tourists to the spots where there are elephants.”

Need for revamp

Despite the success of the Valparai model, it is yet to be implemented elsewhere, and the elephant-human conflict in 10 Tamil Nadu districts along the Western Ghats continues without authorities taking it seriously.

For instance, in Coimbatore’s Thadagam village, unchecked development has taken place right in the heart of an important elephant corridor.

A Rajan, a wildlife activist living in this area, said that the conflict between man and tuskers has only increased in the past two decades. “Elephants get confused by all the rapid development and head for cultivated lands,” said Rajan. “They are scared and chased away by workers everywhere they go. Over a period of time, the elephants develop an aversion to humans as a result and hit out at them.”

In Thadagam, residents roll burning tyres towards elephants, burst firecrackers and also throw stones at them, which hurt the animals. Similar methods are followed to chase elephants away from human habitations in all other districts along the Western Ghats, like in Erode, Krishnagiri and Dharmapuri.

“Unlike other wild animals, elephants are very calm,” said wildlife photographer John Abraham. “Normally they do not come near human habitation but due to thirst and hunger they are forced to do so. Elephants give us due warning when we go into areas where they are present. They break tree branches, trumpet and make us aware of their presence. We should move away when we hear these warnings. But in spite of these warnings if we go closer, they might attack us to defend themselves.”

Activists feel that the state government needs to implement warning systems like the one in place in Valparai in order to address the elephant-human conflict in a sustainable manner. They also feel the local media must play a positive role in creating awareness about the issue.

“When people see or read news such as ‘wild tuskers run rampage’ or ‘tusker destroys crops’, they feel that the elephant is their enemy and try to attack the animals,” said Raghunathan of the Nature Conservation Foundation. “Elephants that are constantly chased by humans show their anger on innocents when they get a chance.”

Corrections and clarifications: The headline of the piece has been altered to correct an error.