From coffee plantations to conflict zones: Karnataka’s elephant conservation is at a crossroads

South First speaks to animal conservationists to understand why elephants attack and what people can do to minimise human-animal conflict.

ByBellie Thomas

Published Feb 21, 2024 | 11:00 AMUpdatedFeb 21, 2024 | 12:36 PM

A herd of elephants walking through the forest. (AJTJohnsingh)

The persistent human-elephant conflict in Karnataka and its neighbouring regions of Kerala and Tamil Nadu is poised to continue unchecked for years unless politics yields to scientifically devised strategies, in collaboration with wildlife researchers, for effective elephant conservation, as asserted by elephant experts.

On Monday, 19 February, the Congress government in Karnataka announced a compensation of ₹15 lakh to the family of Ajeesh Joseph Panachiyil in Kerala. Ajeesh, aged 42, met a tragic end on 10 February when a radio-collared elephant from Karnataka, which migrated to Wayanad, charged into his residential compound in Mananthavady and trampled him to death. The incident has since sparked widespread protests in the area.

The Karnataka government’s decision to provide compensation comes after a request placed by Congress leader Rahul Gandhi who represents the Wayanad constituency in the Lok Sabha. The decision has been met with severe criticism on why Karnataka should be offering compensation to a victim in Kerala. Several leaders have pointed out, and rightly so, to similar cases in Karnataka that go unnoticed or unacknowledged by the government.

Ajeesh, one of three victims in Wayanad since January, represents a growing concern. Vellachalil Paul (49), a member of the forest protection committee and an eco-tourism guide at the Kuruvadweep, was trampled to death by a wild elephant from a herd that chased him. In another incident on 30 January, Lakshmanan N, an estate watcher at Tholpetty in Wayanad, was killed in an elephant attack.

Following the viral circulation of CCTV footage depicting the radio-collared tusker from Karnataka trampling Ajeesh, protests erupted in Wayanad. The Forest Department deployed a force of over 200 personnel to capture the tusker, but it proved elusive. During the protests, locals criticised the Karnataka Forest Department upon learning that the elephant causing mayhem in Wayanad had been previously captured in Belur.

Karnataka Minister for Forests, Ecology, and Environment, Eshwar Khandre, contested the labelling of elephants as Karnataka or Kerala elephants, emphasising their migratory nature through adjoining forests. The State government’s offer of a compensation was also to offset this criticism.

Also Read: Human-animal conflict in Wayanad: KCBC seeks state, Centre intervention

Where elephant conservation goes wrong

Over the past decade, wild elephants have been captured by the Forest Department from Chamarajanagar, particularly from coffee plantations in Hassan, Chikkamagaluru, and Kodagu. Subsequently, these elephants are radio-collared and translocated to the Bandipur and Nagarahole forests, where it is assumed they will live without venturing out, according to the Forest Department.

“Coffee plantations offer abundant water, food, tree shades, and their favourites, coconut and arecanut trees, along with toddy palm trees and jackfruit trees. Herds that make these plantations their habitat resist leaving, with several elephant calves born there, considering these areas their territories. The newborn calves do not comprehend the concept of wild forests, leading to a cycle that could persist for another 60 years for this generation of elephants,” Ramesh Belagere, a wildlife researcher, explains to South First.

The only solution for human-animal conflict is by developing tolerance and compassion towards wild animals, comes Belagere’s impassioned plea.

He notes that Hassan and Kodagu showcase different attitudes towards elephant encounters.

“In Hassan, people cannot tolerate an elephant — or any other wild animal — entering their plantations. They make a big hue and cry about it and even disturb the animal, chase it, and so on. If the menace continues, they approach their local elected representatives who, in turn, instruct the Forest Department officials to capture the elephants and translocate them to different areas. However, in Kodagu, this is not the case. People co-exist with wildlife. They might spot an elephant or even a leopard at their plantation but they will let it pass through without even disturbing it,” Ramesh explains.

Delving into the behaviour of captured and translocated wild elephants, wildlife researcher Senani tells South First that elephants moved from their home range exhibit confusion, rage, and agitation, desiring to return to familiar territory. “Young male elephants may adapt to new habitats when translocated, but adult males and most females find it challenging, constantly yearning to return to their birthplace or known territory,” Senani explains.

Despite perferring known territory, Ramesh explains that elephants are not “territorial” animals. “They may stay at one place for a long time depending on the availability of food and water, along with chances of mating. However, once the food and water is exhausted, they migrate to other places,” he says.

Ramesh further explains that most captured elephants are from Hassan, where people resist elephant intrusion. These elephants, fitted with radio collars, are then translocated to Bandipur and Nagarhole forests. “However, this approach proves futile, as translocated elephants need only walk 8-10 km in one direction, which they can do in less than half a day, before they exit the forest,” he explains.

He adds that the radio collars serve no purpose unless there is coordination between the Karnataka Forest Department and their counterparts in Kerala or Tamil Nadu in monitoring the movement of these captured elephants.

Also Read: Wayanad wild elephant attack: Karnataka government to pay compensation

Patterns of elephant movement

The radio-collared elephants undergo trauma during their capture, involving chases by the Forest Department’s trained kumki elephants, tranquiliser shots, and painful translocations. Confused, enraged, and agitated, these elephants may attack anything they perceive as a threat. The example of the radio-collared tusker that entered Wayanad and killed Ajeesh illustrates this point.

The process of capturing wild elephants from coffee plantations, radio-collaring them, and translocating them has been going on for over a decade. Around 10 years ago, nearly 20 wild elephants were translocated from Hassan’s coffee plantations. However, within five years from the last capture, approximately 42 new wild elephants have arrived in the same coffee plantations — all without radio collars.

Ramesh further explains that both radio-collared and non-radio-collared wild elephants migrate during the summer when water becomes scarce, and the food in Bandipur and Nagarahole forests turns into dry deciduous forests. Non-radio-collared elephants migrate from South to North through the Western Ghats or the Sahayidri mountain range, finding relief in the Kabini’s backwaters during their journey. Their final destination is the greener expanse of Kerala’s Wayanad district, where food and water are abundant.

Non-radio-collared wild elephants from the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve in Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Karnataka also migrate towards the northwestern part of Nilgiris, reaching Kutta in Nagarahole. These elephants traverse the edges of the Western Ghats, including Shola forests such as Brahmagiri in Madikeri, Pushpagiri, Narimalai behind the Iruppu waterfalls in Kodagu, and Thiruneli in Kerala. Eventually, they return to a part of Bandipur near Mudumalai, completing their migratory cycle in Hassan.

On the other hand, radio-collared elephants, after leaving Bandipur and Nagarahole forests, attempt to migrate towards Wayanad in Kerala and then head towards Hassan.

Also Read: Wayanad MP Rahul Gandhi visits bereaved kin of wild elephant attack victims

When politics gets in the way

Politics impedes effective scientific strategies adopted for elephant conservation, according to sources within the Forest Department.

In Hassan, a BJP stronghold, local resistance to wild elephants prompts elected representatives to direct Forest Department officials to capture and translocate the elephants to appease political agendas.

However, this approach fails to address the elephants’ natural inclination to migrate in search of food, water, and their favoured coffee plantations.

“This issue has to be addressed beyond politics, in consultation with wildlife experts, who have years of scientific research on the subject under their belt,” a source tells South First.