[Commentary] Elephants and humans coexist in Pandanallur

  • Elephant-human conflicts are a common occurrence in the Pandanallur range, Tamil Nadu where, due to land use and weather changes, search for food often lures elephants out of the forest.
  • Diligent tracking of elephant movements by forest officials and co-opting tribal communities in these efforts have helped mediate and soften the disturbances.
  • Elephants travel long distances to meet their needs of fodder, water and breeding and they usually use the same routes to cover the different places.
  • The views in the commentary are that of the author.

Yet another magical sunset in the entrancingly beautiful hill ranges of Gudalur in Tamil Nadu. But forest range officers (FROs) in the Pandanallur Range here have always been more interested in the elephant herds ambling towards the winding ghat road. As the misty darkness creeps onto the slopes, their teams are busy planning safe crossover strategies.

Surrounded by various sanctuaries including Silent Valley, Mukurthi, Bandipur and Amarambalam, at any given point about 77 to 160 elephants can stray into this area, says Kommu Omkaram, IFS, who took over as District Forest Officer, Gudalur Forest Division, earlier this year.

“As a vital elephant corridor, this terrain straddles many sensitive zones. To protect elephants in their home zones and avoid conflicts with humans who’ve encroached into their spaces over the last many decades has been the challenge always,” emphasises Omkaram.

That many of these Janmi lands once belonged to the Nilambur Kovilagam and are in the process of being taken over by the government, only adds to this challenge.

Innumerable ‘Caution – Elephant Crossing Ahead!’ signs dot the roadsides, in strategic locations. Nagappan, a soft-spoken tea estate worker smiles, “When the elephants come near our homes, we let them eat what they want and then they go away. No problem for both of us!”

But Jose, a small plantation owner, rues, “If elephants destroy our only source of income to pay our children’s school fees, how can we feel kind to them?”

Search for food often the cause for elephant-human conflicts

The months from February to July generally signal the peak season of elephant intrusion into human habitats. During the rains, the elephants venture out less, since there is more food inside the forest. In summer, the elephant herds are lured by fruit trees outside, particularly the jackfruit.

“In summer, the elephants relish the guava-like fruits of the kashtapattai (Careya arborea), or the paneer goyya (Psidium guajava). Most times I have seen them push ripe palapazham (Artocarpus heterophyllus or jack fruit) down from trees, and stamping it with just the right pressure to reach the juicy flesh inside. Post rains, the lemon grass is another favourite!”, says Murugan, who chances upon many yaanai koottams (elephant herds) in the Gene Pool garden in Nadugani in Gudalur.

The elephants in Pandannalur, in search of food often land up in human-dominated habitats like plantations. Photo courtesy forest department.

Twenty-one-year-old Vijay has been on the Anti Depradation Squad (ADS) on the Nadugani beat for a few years now. “We are on rounds from 9 pm to 6 pm, eight of us during day and ten in the night. We watch closely for signs of elephant movement and tell-tale signs like dung on paths, their sounds and smells. Some days or nights we have to shepherd an entire koottam (group) – about 60 elephants. Night time is risky. If an elephant runs toward us, we have to scatter in many directions. Sometimes, we use crackers to direct their movement to safe zones. Mostly, the herds in my division are seen near Eliaskadai, Selakunnu, Ponnur and Kaidhakuli. Our team is familiar with the habits of some of the elephant herd’s members.  I have known Mottai vaal (the one with no tail), for the last 11 years now, and he can very sweetly bend his head so as not to disturb a simple homestead in order to eat the fruits inside and leave quietly soon after.”

Elephants have life spans similar to humans and live in herds normally led by a matriarch. Travelling long distances to meet their needs of fodder, water and breeding, they usually use the same routes to cover the different places.

Tracking the elephants reduces risks for conflicts

Identification of key conflict zones has been very useful. “Earlier, when an elephant was spotted near a village, we used to send an SMS alert to the villagers (about 1300 registered users) informing them of the presence of the animal, and the phone number of the forest watcher or guard in charge so that they do not venture out after dark,” said G. Ramakrishnan, FRO Gudalur Range.  Diverse early-warning systems have ensured a marked reduction in the number of conflicts since 2015. Those who succumbed were mostly inebriated, or not heeded repeated warnings.

“Co-opting tribal communities into our team helped us reach out to mediate and soften disturbances. Many months at a stretch, we have gone without even one quiet day or night,” says FRO V. Saravanan, who worked three years with the Gudalur elephants on his last posting.

“However, the unprecedented and continuing lockdown situation has meant lesser vehicle movement and lesser disturbance to the elephants. So they are also less aggressive. Also, the closure of  TASMAC liquor shops and consequently fewer people in the ‘dangerous’ times of 5 am to 8 am (when the elephants are returning to their forest) and 6pm to 8 pm or later (when they are straying or searching for food near habitation), has ensured almost no deaths due to conflict. Villagers are even being advised to use up the jackfruit on their trees before they ripen, so as not to tempt the elephants. Why blame them later?” says DFO K. Omkaram.

Forest officials in Gudalur are wary of poachers or human-elephant conflicts. Photo by Irshadpp/Wikimedia Commons.

The forest department recently introduced sensor-based early warning systems that automatically sound strident alarms in labour quarters like Cherambadi, to warn of elephant presence nearby. And this has proved even more effective.

Currently, almost all the forest staff’s time has to be focused on diligent monitoring of the particularly “difficult” elephants alongside extensive patrolling rounds to check boundaries, encroachers or poaching activity.  In the Gudalur Forest Division alone, there are 28 Beats in 6 ranges, spread over 700 sq per m, with 100 ADS, 25 anti-poaching watchers and also 10 Rapid Rescue reams.

Landuse changes another cause for conflict

As use of privately owned lands changed from forests that previously provided habitat to the elephants for agricultural use, the risks for elephant-human conflict increased significantly.

As Sumesh Soman IFS, the last DFO of this range (currently Wildlife Warden, Meghamalai Wildlife Sanctuary, Theni) states, “The Forest Conservation Act of 1980 has been a major shot in the arm for these forests. Under the Janmam Act, a further 30,000 acres have recently been handed over to our Department. The drastic changes in the landscape, (as a result of conversion of forests to agriculture/horticulture) and other infrastructure like buildings, roads, fences, walls etc, is what leads to conflicts. Strategic surveys and demarcation of encroached lands can further improve the quality of the elephant habitat.”

“Wish these lands had been protected by the government earlier from encroachments and people. So many large tracts of land have been converted into tea estates and the human population in many areas has doubled/tripled in a short span of time.” confirms a forester, who has lived over 41 years in Devalai. Compensation plans followed by the forest department reimburses elephant-caused damage, with plantation compensated at Rs 30,000 per acre and a life at Rs 4 lakhs (400,000).

Shobha Menon is the founder of, Nizhal, a Chennai-based NGO that connects local communities for tree conservation in urban areas. When she is not firefighting for tree friends, she likes to write.


Banner image:  Diligent tracking of elephant movements by forest officials and co-opting tribal communities in these efforts have helped mediate and soften the disturbances. Photo courtesy forest department.

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