It was a cloudy Saturday evening at Athivana estate in Srimangala in Kodagu, Karnataka. The forest department’s Rapid Response Team was ready to chase three elephant cows that had entered the estate at the crack of dawn.

Headed by Range Forest Officer of Srimangala, Veerendra Sanna Basavanvar, three young men began their operation by hurling three firecrackers and repeatedly blowing a horn. The elephants, however, stood their ground until the operation was aborted due to rains.

“I’m not a forest officer, I’m an elephant officer,” joked Basavanvar who oversees an elephant chasing operation every day. Srimangala in south Kodagu is one of the epicentres of escalating human-elephant conflict in the district. The Srimangala range with its three divisions – Irupu, Pookala and Palamane – accounted for one death and about 500 cases of crop loss and injuries, put together, in the last one year.

Signage to warn motorists of an elephant crossing area in Somwarpet, Kodagu district. Credit: Abhishek N Chinnappa/Mongabay

A resident of Srimangala, CK Sudha was returning home at 7 am from a nearby grocery shop when he came face to face with a wild elephant that reportedly charged at him and trampled him, killing him instantly.

The losses translate into a monetary loss for the exchequer too – Rs 40 lakh has been given as compensation to farmers for various losses last year.

Range Forest Officer of Somwarpet, Lakshmikant N, who manages three divisions, Somwarpet, Shanivarasanthe and Kushalnagar, said 25 individuals are seen constantly in his range. One death and one injury have been reported from the range in the last five years.

Kodagu farmers are facing an agrarian crisis of a different kind. Human-elephant interactions have become so commonplace in the district that they make news only if they turn violent and ugly. In the last two years, between 2017 and 2019, there have been six deaths in Kodagu, more than 25 injuries and about Rs 500 lakh paid as ex gratia for damages incurred, including loss of life, said Deputy Conservator of Forest Virajpet, D Maria Christu Raja.

An unending forest

Located on the eastern slopes of Western Ghats, Kodagu spans over 4,102 sq km and is blessed with 3,251 sq km of forest area out of which 796 sq km is dense forest cover, as per the State of the Forest Report 2017 by the Ministry of Environment and Forest.

“Kodagu has an undulating topography, interspersed with valleys cultivating largely coffee and plains with mostly paddy,” said Col Muthanna of Coorg Wildlife Society, an NGO working towards preserving Kodagu’s biodiversity. There are other crops like cardamom, pepper, coconut, areca nut and most recently, even oil palms that are grown here. Kodagu is known for its coffee cultivation and the coffee agroforestry practised here contributes to the biodiversity of the region. The largest coffee-producing district in the state, the latest estimate of the Coffee Board of India suggests, Kodagu contributes 34% to the coffee production in India.

Kodagu is surrounded by thick forests. There are three wildlife sanctuaries – the Brahmagiri, the Pushpagiri and the Talakaveri wildlife sanctuaries and one national park, Rajiv Gandhi national park, also called Nagarhole Tiger Reserve.

All these contribute to making the Kodagu landscape resemble one unending forest despite severe fragmentation of forest at various spots. This seamlessness of forests and farmlands make the landscape conducive for gentle giants to move in and out of forests in search of food.

A road passing through a coffee estate in Kodagu. Photo by Abhishek N. Chinnappa. Credit: Abhishek N Chinnappa/Mongabay

Planters’ woes

Farmers of Siddapur were largely into paddy farming until crop raids by elephants began in 1986. Farmer Praveen Bopaiah of Guhya village in Siddapur who owns 110 acres of land, abandoned farming after crop raids became regular. “Initially, elephants ventured out only in the night,” he said. “Now they freely roam about. They first targeted paddy, then coconut, areca nut, jackfruit, bananas and finally, they started developing a taste for coffee as well. We have 30-35 regular elephants visiting our farms.” Bopaiah has now taken up a job in merchant navy. “No crop can be grown here,” he rued. “I started pledging my land when the need for money arose. I’m in a debt of Rs 15 lakh now.”

Award-winning paddy farmer Bob Cushalappa of Siddapur too has given up on paddy. A few years ago, even his Arabica plantation was destroyed by elephants. “After I installed the solar fence around my plantation, the elephants have stopped coming,” he said. “But they go to the adjacent estates.” Basavanvar tells us that the story is no different in Srimangala where farmers have abandoned paddy cultivation.

Most traditional farmers are from the native Kodava community. Contrary to popular belief of the community being affluent, less than 10% of the population boasts of large landholdings of more than 10 hectares, according to the Coffee Board of India estimates for the year 2016-2017. And the other 90% of small landholders are hit the hardest with elephant raids and the resultant crop loss, labour issues and land price crash.

Solar fencing in an estate to prevent elephants from entering. The fences give a mild jolt when touched deterring the animals to enter. Credit: Abhishek N Chinnappa/Mongabay

Apart from damage to crops, there is a constant fear of elephant attacks that the planters and workers live with. Former wildlife warden BB Chengappa who lives in Kutta, close to Nagarhole national park said that he walks to his estate even in peak monsoon without an umbrella or a raincoat. “I fear that the sound of the rain on the umbrella or the raincoat will distract me and I could miss the presence of an elephant in my estate,” he said. “There is a crop raid by elephants every day in my farm. Herds of 14-15 elephants and even lone tuskers.”

In intense conflict areas, there is a shortage of farmhands. Cases of labourers getting trampled on by enraged elephants have become common, too. Kamala (55) was returning home from work in the estate of a multinational coffee company in Siddapur when she was attacked by an elephant. She was injured and is confined to bed for the rest of her life.

Kariappa Pattada (57) of Somwarpet was going to sell milk in the morning when an enraged tusker plunged his tusks into Kariappa. He dodged death by a whisker when his wife and a few people managed to distract the elephant by shouting and screaming.

Bopaiah said that land prices have crashed at severely affected places like Guhya. “Even if we want to sell our lands, there are no takers,” he said.

Pattada Kariyappa shows his injuries as he poses for a photo near the location where he was attacked by an elephant in Dodalli village near Somwarpet, Kodagu. Credit: Abhishek N Chinnappa/Mongabay

Unlikely villains

In this tussle for space, elephants stand to lose as much. While cases of retaliatory killings are not often heard of in Kodagu, elephants lose their numbers or are severely injured from proofing used to keep them in the forest like elephant proof trenches, solar fences, and tentacle solar fences and now rail barricades. An elephant was shot dead at the Palangala village early this year, reportedly by a planter in self-defence. In early June this year, an elephant calf died when an adult elephant fell on it while being chased by forest officials in Pollibetta. Though not in Kodagu district, an elephant near Nagarhole national park got stuck in a rail barricade put up by the forest department while attempting to jump over it when chased by villagers.

The Project Elephant census in 2017 shows Karnataka leading in elephant population in the country with 6,049 individuals and an overall density of 0.67 elephant/sq km. Despite having three wildlife sanctuaries and one national park, the elephant population in Kodagu remains unclear.

DCF Raja said, “2017’s all-India elephant estimation exercise gave us a total count of 120 elephants in coffee estates of Kodagu. Since then, we are monitoring elephants in private areas on a regular basis. The present numbers vary from 40 to 100 with an average of 50-60 elephants in private areas during the major part of the year.”

Said M Ananda Kumar, a wildlife scientist at Nature Conservation Foundation who has been studying human-elephant conflict in Valparai in Tamil Nadu and Hassan district in Karnataka, “Nobody knows the exact number of elephants spread in these areas. What we have is an educated guess.”

The local population believes that conservation has been a success and what is left of the forests is not able to hold the numbers leading to elephants venturing out. Kumar, however, said that none of these is based on data. “People believe the population is increasing when they see calves in herds. But elephant deaths inside the forests are not taken into account,” he reasoned.

Elephants, like any other wild animal, avoid human contact as much as possible. There are enough reasons to believe that they are taking a risk by coming out of their habitats. But why are they doing it?

An elephant calf inside an estate in Somwarpet, Kodagu. Credit: Abhishek N Chinnappa/Mongabay

On the route from Kushalnagar to Yadavanad, where the Harangi Reservoir is located, the contrast in vegetation on either side of the road is stark – on one side is vast swathes of forest area with just teak and invasive species like lantana growing in the thicket while on the other side of the road is lush green farmlands with coffee under the shades of native and shade trees. Neither teak nor lantana is food for elephants. Why would they stay in a forest devoid of food and water while it is easily available in private lands nearby?

Thirty-four-year old farmer Hemanth Kumar is outraged that he cannot grow anything in his four-acre land. “The government displaced us to build the Harangi dam and gave us land in the forest area as compensation,” he said. “Now, who will compensate for our loss from daily elephant raids? The government gave us the land that belongs to the wild.”

Renowned ecologist of Indian Institute of Science Raman Sukumar in his study titled A brief review of the status, distribution and biology of wild Asian elephants observed that the loss and fragmentation of habitat is perhaps “the most important factor that’s pushing the elephants out of their habitats in many parts of Asia. In many parts of India, the expansion of subsistence agriculture, commercial agriculture (tea and coffee plantations) and developmental projects (dams, roads and mineral mines), have also resulted in the loss and fragmentation of habitat. Habitat fragmentation increases the contact between elephants and agriculture, and the intensity of conflict is usually higher in more fragmented habitats”.

Sukumar explained that in the case of Kodagu, forests are highly fragmented in the North Eastern parts that fall on the northern part of the river Cauvery. “The conflict started in the early ’80s when the male elephants started venturing out,” he said. “This was followed by herds. This got intense in Kodagu because of a major concentration of elephants in that area.”

He dedicated it largely to what he called “a complex interplay of push and pull factors”. Habitat loss was intensified with drought in the early part of the century which was followed by forest fires that completely wiped out grass. In its place grew invasive species like lantana that did not give a chance for the grass to grow, he said.

A view of the Harangi dam across the Harangi river in Huduguru village in Kodagu. Habitat fragmentation that increases the contact between elephants and agriculture is considered the prime cause of conflict. Credit: Abhishek N Chinnappa/Mongabay

Another intrinsic factor is the behavioural ecology of the elephant, he explains. “Dispersal by male elephants is a natural way of avoiding inbreeding. They also go out in search of nutrition to come into musth soon so they have a better chance of mating. In one of our studies, we observed that elephants outside protected areas to have lower levels of glucocortisol, a hormone released during stress, and grew bigger in size, an indicator that farmlands are better habitats than protected areas for the elephants,” he reasons.

Virajpet DCF Raja also believes in the changes in the land use pattern in the last century as the main cause. “Major land-use changes and human settlements happened after the 1980s with exponential growth in population. Traditional corridors got cultivated with coffee. Agriculture also intensified in this area,” he said.

Sukumar said that since Nagarhole is one of the best-protected areas in the country, the elephant population is found to be growing at a rate of 1-2 percent a year. “This area has reproductively active elephants coming out in large numbers and establishing themselves,” he said, adding that with better law enforcement, the levels of deterrents like gun use (Kodavas are legally entitled to own guns) also has come down and better agriculture all over the country has made the appeal to venture into agriculture lands for food irresistible.

Elephants are the largest land animal in Asia; they need about 250 kg of food and 300 litres of water every day and a vast area to move about. The idea that elephants should stay in the forest itself is absurd, believes NCF’s Ananda Kumar. “A herd has a home range size of 300-400 sq km while a tusker or a makhna needs 700 sq km. Nagarhole is one of the largest reserve forests in the country and is about 650 sq km in area. Anamalai Tiger Reserve has about 950 sq km. These spaces are sufficient for just one and a half males,” he said. For elephants, a shade-grown coffee estate is as good a habitat as a forest.

Teak monoculture, started by the British and raised by Indian government for timber and wood till the 80s, dominated the Western Ghats for decades and is often quoted as a reason for habitat loss. Dr C.G. Kushalappa, Dean, College of Forestry, Kodagu said that teak has certainly contributed to the habitat loss. “It has also affected the biodiversity because any monoculture affects the groundwater distribution,” he adds.

DCF Raja, however, dismisses it as a convenient excuse for a situation that has gone awry. “The last plantation was raised in the early 1980s. The forests can hold about 1.54 elephants per sq. km. in this belt—one of the highest densities in the world. The maximum number of elephants coming into conflict is less than 10 percent of the population,” he said.

Tracks left by elephants crossing into an estate near Maldare, Kodagu. Credit: Abhishek N Chinnappa/Mongabay

Elephants adapt

While the debate gets louder on the causative factors, elephants have devised peculiar ways to adapt to the changing reality around them. Thanks to the easy availability of food in estates, more elephants are leaving protected areas for greener pastures. This has led to a strange phenomenon of estate-bred elephants where the herds have moved to an estate where they eat, rest and breed. “It looks like some of them have not even seen the forest. If you chase them, they go to the adjacent estate,” said paddy farmer Cushalappa.

More numbers are spotted in the months of June and July or jackfruit months as farmers call them. But these months are also preferred for the abundance of grass in the plantations. A 1998 study found that the most commonly raided crops in the district were paddy - 48.2%, coffee - 17%, cardamom - 10.5%, coconut - 8.6% and banana - 6.2%. Adjusting to the circumstances, the elephants have begun to consume coffee as well, finds out another study. Another peculiar behaviour is the splitting and regrouping of herds when chased which is not regular elephant behaviour, informs a wildlife researcher who doesn’t want to be named.

And barriers, often used to keep elephants within protected areas, are not really of use either. “Elephants are intelligent animals and they come up with innovative ways to circumvent barriers,” said Basavanvar. Trenches are ineffective, especially during monsoon months when they can dig heels and flatten them. Planters have reported cases where elephants have felled trees over solar fences to cut off electricity and walked across them. It is also observed that they are getting increasingly aggressive, probably as an outcome of being constantly chased.

Fragmented forests, closed corridors and lack of food in protected areas have left the elephants with no choice but to confront humans for their essentials.

Some estate-bred elephants eat, rest and breed in the estates to adapt to the changing landscapes. Credit: Abhishek N Chinnappa/Mongabay

This article first appeared on Mongabay.