Elephants no longer hit the headlines when they venture to human habitats on the fringes of forests but recent reports of jumbo visits from Palakkad and Thrissur marked the beginning of a trend. A herd of elephants pushed their way up to 30 kilometers into human habitats and refused to return to the safety of the forests after they had their fill.
What prompted this unnatural behavior? Experts lay out a variety of answers but everyone agrees at one point: The beasts are forced out of their habitats when the forest cover disappears at an alarming rate due to human activity.
The conflict between wild animals and humans is nothing new in Kerala. Even at the fag end of the 19th century, Wayanad was full of tree houses intended to keep a tab on wild animals from a distance. A royal decree from 1818 lists out the weapons that can be used to scare away wild animals from farm lands.
The situation has spiraled out of hand since then. Large swathes of forest land has been encroached by humans.
Wild animals, especially elephants, are attached to their territories. They refuse to acknowledge the human encroachment in their areas. That behavior explains the frequent outings on the other side of the forest border. They are just taking a walk through their former ranges.
The graceful giants are just following a trail ingrained in their genetic memory. The problem is, many of those trails have been converted into farm lands or sometimes, even small towns.
Indigenous tribesmen viewed wild animals as part of their existence. The strife of the species was unheard of in those harmonious times. Of course there would be animal attacks on humans but that was part of life for them.
Migration and the influx of settlers changed the equations forever. Hostilities towards animals became part of the landscape. Changes in agricultural patterns aggravated the problem. The introduction of crops such as plantains and sugarcane provided an open invite to the pachyderms, known for their sweet tooth.
The farmers were left with no option but to fight the animals to protect their livelihood. As long as we continue with this pattern, animal incursions like those witnessed in Thrissur and Palakkad are a given.
Stones to drones
Farmers have used everything from stones to drones to keep the animals at bay. Flaming torches and recorded roars of a tiger failed to scare away the elephants. The beasts are used to the flames and the tin drums by now. Evolution plays its part and some elephants use these warning signs to locate a tasty meal! Farmers nowadays switch off lights at night to escape the searching eyes of the elephants.
The most effective measure in elephant control remains a night-long vigil on top of a tree house. However, it is not easy to find labor to do the demanding night shifts.
Another possible alternative is to raise a fence around the farm lands. Planting cacti along the fringes of farm lands is an effective way of keeping away the raiding animals. Another argument is to install beehives. None of these measures have been found to be successful in studies conducted in other countries.
Beekeeping may not deter the elephants but the farmers can tap the hives as an additional source of revenue.
Herds of elephants were found to have ventured into human habitats and traversed for miles before they entered another forest patch in other states, says Dr P S Easa, conservationist and former head of the Kerala Wildlife Research Institute. A particular herd from Dharmapuri in Tamil Nadu has crossed human territory to access another forest area in Chittoor in Andhra Pradesh.
Easa says that the greatest impediment to the safe passage of the elephants is the mob attracted by the phenomenon. Elephants get irritated and distracted when a crowd blocks their way to the forest. What we need is effective mob control, he says.
Dr E K Easwaran, former chief vet with the Kerala forest department, concurs. The department does not have enough experienced staff or 'kumki' elephants to escort the stranded wild elephants back to the forest. Kerala has to rely on Karnataka and Tamil Nadu to do the job.
The loss of elephant corridors and passages aggravates the problem, he says.
Kerala’s game plan
The Kerala forest department has dug trenches along 584 kilometers to keep the elephants out of human habitats. As much as 1,501 kilometers of solar fences, 35 kilometers of cemented walls, 3.5 kilometers of stone-paved trenches and 259 kilometers of organic fences have also been put up to reduce the conflict. There are also13 rapid response teams to deal with emergency situations.
As many as 203 wild animals had been killed across India by electrocution and poisoning between 2007 and 2011.
As many as 400 people are killed by wild animals a year on average. As many as 7,381 people were injured in animal attacks between 2007 and 2011. A whopping number of 89,956 farms have been raided and 14,144 heads of cattle preyed upon in the same period. The government had distributed about Rs 13.7 crore as compensation to the farmers.
Tigers have killed 98 humans between 2009 and 2016, while elephants claimed 2,804.
The affected areas in Kerala are primarily located in the northern districts. As many as 269 humans lost their lives to wild animals between 2002 and 2012. Elephants were the major adversary by way of the number of victims - 120 humans were killed by elephants. Tigers killed 15 humans, leopards killed two and bears killed five, while gaurs killed eight. As many as 119 people died of snake bite.
As many as 503 people were injured by wild animals in the same period and 649 heads of cattle were mauled.Further, the state government has distributed Rs 26.77 crore as compensation to the farmers during the period between 2009-15.
(Information drawn from a report prepared by Dr P S Easa, Dr S Raju and Dr Jiji K Joseph for the forest department.)