Tamil Nadu probes mysterious elephant deaths

  • As mystery shrouds sixty-four elephant deaths, Tamil Nadu Forest Department constitutes an expert panel to investigate conservation threats and human-elephant conflicts.
  • Poisoning and disease emerge as prime suspects.
  • Pushed out from degrading habitats, elephants fight out a battle for their territory and food.
  • Land-use change in vital migratory corridors pushed elephants out while crop pattern change in lands abutting forests upset the traditional coexistence relations between humans and wildlife leading to intensified human-animal conflicts in the post-liberalisation period.

A 15-year-old female elephant was found lying sick four kilometers inside the forests in Boluvampatti range in the Coimbatore forest division in Tamil Nadu on August 8. It’s tough skin sticking to its bones, the extremely thin young jumbo refused to eat and could not be put back on its feet despite two days of continuous veterinary care and treatment. It died two days later. Sixty-four elephants have died mysteriously in the forests of Tamil Nadu in the last seven months. Of these 17 died in Coimbatore forest division. Before their deaths, many of them had displayed disorientation and restless movement before they lay down, never to be revived. Eight of the 17 deaths occurred within a single forest beat – Pethikuttai in Sirumugai range.

As causes of the deaths remain unclear, Tamil Nadu Forest Department constituted an expert committee to study the larger conservation challenges concerning elephants and to recommend actions for minimising unnatural deaths and man-animal conflicts.

Besides deaths in Coimbatore forest division, more than twenty deaths had occurred in the neighbouring Sathyamangalam wildlife sanctuary but the mortalities had escaped the media radar. Including the death of a male elephant on July 20, whose tusks were missing (later recovered from a local man) ten deaths occurred in two forest divisions in Krishnagiri circle. Deaths in other landscapes in the state have not come to light yet. While a Botswana-type mass mortality is being discounted by conservationists, officials coming under flak, show a marked shift from their habitual downplay mode and are acknowledging disease and poisoning as plausible causes of the continuing deaths. 

In the case of the last elephant that died on August 10 in Boluvampatti range in Coimbatore forest division, samples from the dead animal’s organs like liver, intestines, and kidneys were sent to the advanced toxicology lab at Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History in Coimbatore. 

“Intestinal parasite presence or possible organophosphorus presence are being suspected,” D. Venkatesh, District Forest Officer (DFO) of Coimbatore forest division, told the media. The forest department claims that investigations into the deaths of other elephants are yet to be concluded.

Illegal mining of red clay over an extent of 4000 acres in Thadagam Valley which has fragmented the prime migratory corridor for elephants going to Kerala forests from Mudumalai and Bandipur areas. Photo by Special Arrangement.

Of deaths and denials 

Elephants across age groups and gender have fallen dead across Tamil Nadu’s enviable stronghold landscapes of Asian elephants. 

According to the Synchronised Elephant Population Estimation carried out in 2017, Tamil Nadu had 2761 elephants as against the national count of 27,312. 

Deaths of wild elephants have been on the rise in Tamil Nadu. Eighty-four elephant deaths were reported in Tamil Nadu in 2018 which rose to 108 in 2019. Between 2001 and 2015, 1113 elephants had died in Tamilnadu forests according to information given by the Tamil Nadu forest department to an RTI petitioner. 

The following had been the deaths in the Coimbatore forest division in the last few years: 2019-11; 2018-12; 2017-19; 2016-22; 2015-8; 2014-17. Between 2014 to 2017 over 250 elephants had died in the Sathyamangalam Wild Life Sanctuary area which encompasses Erode, Sathyamangalam, and Erode Forest Divisions. These deaths will also be studied by the expert committee.

Forest officials however reason that the deaths this year are not unusual as almost the same rate of death was recorded in the last decade.  Elephant deaths are common and natural, said Debasis Jana, Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forest, Coimbatore, on July 8 responding to the press adding that there have been 61 pachyderm deaths in Tamil Nadu this year so far. Three more elephants reportedly have died since then.

Raman Sukumar, professor at Centre for Ecological Studies, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, said a closer look at the sex and age group of the elephants that died recently would be needed to make inferences.

“An average death rate of 10 to 15 percent is tolerable in case of elephant calves; two to three percent is tolerable in the case of sub-adults and female elephants and 4 to 5 percent in case of males which have a higher death rate. The birth rate of Asian elephants is quite encouraging in south India which could be seen from the number of calves present in the herds,” said Sukumar.

Animal welfare NGOs suspect under-reporting of deaths. “We have evidence of unreported deaths and illicit burials in the forests. “We will come up with facts,” asserted Vijay Krishnaraj, the convenor (Tamil Nadu) United Conservation Movement. Deepak Nambiar, founder-trustee, Elephas Maximus Indicus Trust (EMIT) in a letter has raised doubts over the number of deaths and has pointed out that out of the 64 deaths only 31 have been reported in the media and alleges that the rest have been covered up by the department.

Compared with the all India mortality rate of elephants, elephant deaths in Tamil Nadu is a cause for concern, said Coimbatore-based activist K. Mohanraj.

Disease vulnerability

With hundreds of habitations coming up close to the forest fringes, close to 50,000 cattle compete with the wildlife for food and water in Coimbatore forests, Nilgiris, and Sathyamangalam sanctuary. They act as a carrier of diseases like anthrax, foot and mouth disease, and hemorrhagic septicemia. Therefore, the forest management plan envisages the periodical ring vaccination of all the cattle within five km from the forest boundary.

Push-Pull factors and beyond

“The elephants literally need to fight out a battle for their territory and food,” observes a study report by Tamil Nadu Green Movement. According to the report, drastic land use pattern change in the elephants’ traditional migratory corridors (with specific reference to Thadagam valley migratory corridor), have cornered elephants in pockets surrounded by human-made activities.

The eight elephants that died in Pethikuttai and the other elephants in the group are considered as a trapped population. Conservationists are divided in opinion and some believe that elephants would somehow make their way out of trapped situations.

Environmentalist Osai Kalidas of Osai Trust, Coimbatore says the deaths of eight elephants in Pethikuttai forest beat in Coimbatore forest division was a typical impact of corridor fragmentation and habitat degradation. “Elephants from Mudumalai Wild Life Sanctuary during summer traverse through Pethikuttai on their migratory journey to forests in Kerala forests via Coimbatore forests. 

For some reasons, mainly blockages in the Kallar corridor in the foot of Nilgiri hills, a group of 40 to 50 elephants returned this summer and stayed near Pethikuttai. Some of them died. Their prolonged stay needs to be investigated. “The area is infested with invasive plant Prosopis juliflora which the elephants may have eaten. Whether this can harm the elephants’ health needs study,” said Kalidas. 

The issue of pollution of forest streams by discharges from tea plantations and resorts in the  Nilgiris is being raised by activists. Water samples are being taken from the forest water bodies for testing as part of the expert panel study.

Partly agreeing with these observations, the District Forest Officer Venkatesh said the elephants’ movement patterns, ecological changes, and land-use changes would need close study. Water remaining full in the Bhavani reservoir this summer which had disturbed the elephants’ usual movement and fodder availability will be another factor to be brought under the scanner, said Venkatesh.

The less highlighted push factor is however uncontrolled spread of invasive species, Lantana camara and Chromolaena odorata.  “About 30 percent of the prime forests ranging from dry and moist deciduous forests to evergreen, rainforests are taken over by the invasive plants. Consistent policy or strategy is lacking to arrest its spread and resulting degradation of forest ecology”, said Tarsh Thekaekara, a postdoctoral fellow at National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore. 

A young female elephant which died despite treatment near Annaikatti on July 2. Photo by Special Arrangement.

New forms of preventing wildlife from entering farmlands are being improvised from time to time to evade scrutiny by forest personnel. 

In Coimbatore and Sathyamangalam killing of animals by using explosive bait is widespread, said Charles Corfield, a retired forest officer who has worked extensively in the elephant landscapes in Tamil Nadu.

Elephants die or are injured from consuming explosive baits used to attract wild boars or deers. With increasing vigil by forest personnel, farmers now resort to arsenic poisoning, said Corfield. “This kind of poisoning damages the liver and kidney over months (a process that induces chronic poisoning or slow poisoning),” he said, informing that 90 percent of deaths in the region were due to poisoning. Ganesh, a farmer in Chinna Thadagam near Coimbatore which is an elephant conflict-prone area, said maximum elephant deaths were due to poisoning in his area.

Electrified fence in farmlands is yet another major form of elephant killing in large-sized farmlands, educational institutions, and other non-farm activities around the forest borders, according to several studies.

Conservationist Arun Kumar, a member of the Palani Hills Conservation Society said that farmers’ use of banned fertilisers and pesticides will have a poisoning effect on animals that consume the crops.

A. Sukumar, the forest veterinarian in Coimbatore, has said that chronic poisoning was responsible for the death of the male elephant in Sirumugai range on July 3. “Liver and kidney samples were positive for organophosphorus but the food in the stomach was negative for poisoning. This needs to be thoroughly investigated. We have sent the samples to four or five labs for testing,” he said.

 “Going by the post-mortem reports of the last 15 years we can see disease has been the dominant cause of deaths. It could be the main cause now also. We have been able to take fresh samples from many of the dead elephants and have sent them to the state veterinary university. We are sure that the results would reveal the real cause of the deaths,” said Venkatesh.

Activists K. Mohanraj and Arun Shankar charged the results of post-mortem conducted on February 26, April 7, 18, May 11, June 23, 25, July 2, and 3 on elephants that died in Pethikuttai beat in Sirumugai range are yet to come. Post-mortem reports are seldom released, said Vijay. According to official figures, 14 of the 64 deaths have occurred due to intra-herd fights between tuskers which results in fatal injuries. Elephant expert Arivazhagan,  a panel member, does not subscribe to this conclusion. During fights, the weaker one flees and death due to fighting is unthinkable, he said.

Pandemic slows study

A section of expert committee members told Mongabay-India that except for the remote exchange of information the study is yet to commence due to the novel coronavirus disease pandemic. However, in Coimbatore, the initial phase of field-level investigations has begun.

Water and soil samples in the forest and its fringes are being tested for the presence of bacterial and inorganic contaminants. 

Camera traps are being laid to monitor elephants. On a test basis, drone-based elephant protection and health monitoring exercise is being carried out in the Coimbatore forest division.

With no clear picture emerging as test results are awaited, expert panel chairman Shekar Kumar Niraj revealed the direction in which the expert panel’s study was headed.  “Diagnosis so far did not focus much on disease and poisoning angles.  Now the forest officials have been directed to look into the disease angle. The type of diseases that could affect wild elephants are viral (coronaviruses) and bacterial infections including tuberculosis, anthrax, indigestion, gastroenteritis, and ulcer. Systematic investigation of animal deaths has been a grey area.”

“Following official protocols when it comes to post-mortems and other investigative methods would improve diagnostics and once the diagnosis is established, solutions can be worked easily. Genetic study of viruses and bacteria will also be part of our study which would help understand their behaviour and devise the treatment response. Elephant corridor disturbances and land take-over issues, buffer area violations, cropping pattern would be investigated,” said Niraj.

Read more: Let the jumbos pass – avoiding elephant and human deaths around Coimbatore


Banner image: A 13-year-old tusker that died in Nelllimalai Range in Coimbatore forest division on July 31. Photo by Special Arrangement.

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