- The area surrounding Coimbatore city in Tamil Nadu, with its mountains and forests, has become a theatre of conflict between humans and elephants.
- While elephants and humans have been dying around farmlands due to conflict, trains have also been fatally knocking down the jumbos.
- If the activities initiated to prevent the human and elephant deaths succeed, this could be the hope for the coming years.
Madukkarai, a location next to a reserved forest in the Coimbatore district, lies on the slope of Palakkad Hills, which is contiguous to the Nilgiris massif in the Western Ghats. Since decades, elephants have been moving inside these forests. In the recent years, Madukkarai has been in the news for elephants being knocked down by trains that pass close to the mountain. Similarly, with frequent incidents of elephants coming out of the forests, the Coimbatore area has become a theatre of human-elephant conflict, with both human and animal deaths occurring.
Stretching across 694 sq.km, the reserved forest around Coimbatore is a suitable habitat for elephants, and there is one animal for every two square kilometres. According to the Tamil Nadu Forest Department, the estimated elephant population in this division is 250-300 during September-December (offseason). This increases to 650-700 in January-August (peak season).
In the past two decades, human-elephant conflict in this region has increased. Forest officials and researchers attribute this to changes in the land use pattern. According to data compiled by the Tamil Nadu Forest Department, 80 human deaths were recorded in the Coimbatore Forest Division from 2011 to October 2017. About 61 people were injured due to elephants.
Elephants have died due to multiple reasons induced by this conflict, including electrocution from electric fences. Two such elephant deaths were reported in October and in November of 2017. On the other hand, elephants moving out of the forests have been killing people on the outskirts of Coimbatore city.
Near Madukkarai, the threat for elephants is from trains, as they cross the railway tracks, singly or in herds. According to data from the Palakkad railway division, almost 11 elephants were killed while crossing railway tracks in the 30 km-long Kanjikode-Walayar-Ettimadai-Madukkarai stretch in the last decade.
In 2009, a train knocked down four elephants in this area. In 2010, another elephant died here. In June 2016, one female elephant died on the track inside the reserve forest. In July 2016, within a span of 20 days, six elephants died in Madukkarai area. An elephant was hit and flung 100 metres by a speeding train in July 2016. For the first time, the divisional forest officer at Walayar, in Kerala, booked a case against the train driver.
Poor landscape management
“In the recent decades, subsistence agriculture has been converted into high-yielding agriculture,” said V Thirunavukarasu, chief conservator of forest, Coimbatore. “Rampant development like real estate, ashrams and educational institutions in the forest fringes together have contributed to this problem.” The Coimbatore Forest Division shares a 350-km boundary with human habitations and farmlands.
“There were sporadic incidents like this since the 1990s,” said Ramakrishnan Balasundaram, professor, Government Arts College, Ooty, who has researched the conflict issue in the Coimbatore district. “Before the 1990s, the fringe areas were clothed in foothill forests. The elephants spend more time in the forest during the dry season, and during monsoon they prefer to come to this landscape.”
According to G. Sivasubramanian, researcher, Forest Department, human-induced pressures have reduced the forest peripheries, in turn reducing the buffer zone the elephants use regularly. All the small gaps in the corridors have been closed by human habitation.
Thirunavukkarasu believes that the conflict situations arise because developments have happened without understanding the intricacies of elephant movements. “The elephants travel in a fixed path, which is the path that their mother taught them,” he explained. “And this is imprinted in the elephant’s memory. Development activities have caused irreversible damage even before elephant movement patterns could be understood. The forest area, as such, has not reduced. But developments on the fringes have increased. These land use changes were implemented without a clear idea about landscape management.”
Change in crops causes conflict and death
Where traditional farmers practised rain-fed subsistence agriculture for a few months in a year, today, farmers have assured irrigation through borewells and tubewells. Farmers have turned to growing crops such as sugarcane, banana and arecanut that bring better income.
“Before 1995, farmers practised rain-fed agriculture, and during January (harvest period) and February, elephants occasionally raided crops,” Balasundaram said. “Later, the foothill landscape changed. People from different places brought land here and started practising commercial agriculture. Rain-fed farming changed to the farming of perennial crops.”
Sivasubramanian said, “Since sugar companies gave loans to farmers they started growing sugarcane instead of millets. A new issue emerged after that. Farmers built electric fences to prevent raiding of crops by wild boars. When an elephant unknowingly crossed this, they get electrocuted.”
To prevent conflict with elephants along agricultural fields, the forest department constituted a patrolling team to monitor elephant movement around the clock. “We divided the conflict areas into high, medium, and low zones to take action accordingly,” said N. Satheesh, divisional forest officer, Coimbatore. “If farmers on the forest fringes need torches, we provide them.” The forest department is also working towards preventing elephant deaths by electrocution.
Avoiding collision on the tracks
The Sollakarai beat in the Navakkarai section is a part of Madukkarai forest where two railway lines, A and B, cut through the forest. Line A cuts through one and a half km of the reserve forest and line B passes through three kms of the forest area.
“Line A is not an issue as no speeding trains pass through the track. However, many trains cross through track B at night, and elephant accidents have taken place here,” said Senthil Kumar, forest range officer, Madukkarai.
The tracks have been laid on a raised earthen bund built above the forest floor. “Can you see any free space for the elephants to move away when a train approaches them?” asked Kumar. The railway track and the forest are not on an even plane. The elephants cannot escape from a speeding train. They die.
Something had to be done and the forest department undertook a series of measures to address elephant deaths on railway tracks. This included digging elephant-proof trenches, erecting solar fences and ramps for elephants, developing early warning systems and intensifying patrolling. In 2016-17, around 12.4 km of elephant proof trenches were excavated.
The forest department worked with the railway officials to study, track and communicate where elephants were moving, whether it was an individual or a herd, and at what time were they expected to cross the railway tracks. Train drivers were trained on the procedure they needed to adopt if they saw elephants on the track.
Eighteen camera traps were set up to understand the elephant movement in this area. The elephants crossed the track to drink water from a pond on the other side. To prevent the elephants from crossing the track for water, the forest department built a percolation pond on their side of the tracks.
Under Project Kaliru (elephant in Tamil), the forest department constructed three ramps on a 250-metre stretch on each side of the forest. In all, there are six ramps for elephants. “Elephants can go back to the forest using these ramps if they see a train,” Kumar said. “These ramps were located based on camera trap information. Post-construction, camera traps show that the elephants have been using these ramps in the last few months.”
The forest department also set up an early warning system. With infrared sensors mounted on trees, they monitor elephant movement near the rail tracks. “When elephants move towards the tracks the sensors will set off a sound alarm which will alert forest department officials, and an SMS will go to the Palakkad railway control room. The drivers are asked to slow their train speed. In the meanwhile, the forest department patrolling staff lead the elephants back into the forest,” said Kumar.
Ten such sensors have been mounted along the 250-metre stretch where elephants are seen to be moving frequently. “If this works, it can be extended to the entire three-kilometre stretch,” Kumar noted.
One watchtower has been built in this stretch and the suggestion is to build another one on the other side of the rail tracks. The department also wants the ramps to be built with cement, since elephants find it difficult to move quickly over sand.
With the forest department, the railways and researchers working to prevent elephants being knocked down by trains, there is significant promise for improvement of the situation in the future. This together with efforts to reduce conflict along forest edges and farmlands, could help save the lives of elephants and humans.