- The voluntary surrender of 111 illegal and country-made guns on September 30, 2022, in Hosur forest division of Krishnagiri district of Tamil Nadu was the culmination of a drive initiated by the Tamil Nadu Forest department.
- The campaign was conducted to ensure the protection of elephants who begin their annual migration during September to March from neighbouring Karnataka through Hosur and onward into Andhra Pradesh.
- Village heads urge authorities to distribute torch lights to protect from elephants that stray into villages.
‘Ozhippom Thupakkiyai, Kaapom Yanaigalai’ carried the right punch to trigger off a gun surrender drive in Hosur forest division of Krishnagiri district of Tamil Nadu. Translated into English, the message was clear – ‘Eradicate Illegal Country-made Guns, Save Elephants.’
Spearheaded by Karthikeyani Kanagaraj, the Wildlife Warden of Hosur forest division, this campaign for the eradication of illegal country-made guns was kickstarted with a motorbike rally on September 9, 2022. Championing the safety of the pachyderm population, forest officials reached out to villages in seven ranges – Anchetty, Urigam, Jawalagiri, Denkanikottai, Hosur, Rayakottai, and Krishnagiri. An appeal was made to the residents to surrender illegal country-made guns that they possessed, by September 19, either at the forest range office or to their respective panchayat (rural administration) and village heads.
Forest officials further warned that from the second week of October, raids would be carried out in all remote villages and forest fringe villages, using sniffer dogs to detect hidden country-made guns. Any weapons seized during these raids would invite stringent criminal action under the Arms Act, 1959 and the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. Banners dispersing the message in Tamil were sighted in public spaces and regular announcements were made on television.
Hosur division, an elephant habitat
The total geographical area of Krishnagiri district is 5143 square kilometers (sq kms), out of which the forest belt constitutes 1501 sq kms. Rich in flora and fauna, this region is home to 468 plant species, 36 mammal species, 272 birds species, and 172 species of butterflies including rare, endemic, and endangered species such as the grizzled giant squirrel, the four-horned antelope, the Indian leopard, the Asiatic elephant, dhole and sloth bear.
The Hosur forest division is an elephant habitat with migratory and resident elephants. From September to March, elephants migrate from adjoining Bannerghatta and Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary of Karnataka, through the contiguous forest patch of Thally, Jawalagiri of Hosur forest division and then move to fragmented forests like Noganur, Denkanikottai, Sanamavu, Shoolagiri, Melumalai and Maharajagadai reserve forests of Hosur.
One of the reasons for this movement across the fragmented forest is to feed on ragi crops in fields en route. The harvest season of the ragi crop, however, coincides with the movement of elephants. This leads to human-animal conflict resulting in crop and property damages, as well as elephant and human casualties.
Despite steps being taken by the forest department to reduce damages caused by elephants and confine the pachyderms within the reserved forest region by way of trenches, solar fences, and steel wire rope fences, elephant deaths have been reported.
“There were two elephant deaths this year (2022),” says Karthikeyani Kanagaraj of Hosur division. The first elephant was found dead in February 2022 by the patrolling staff inside the forest. Further inquiry led the team to the accused – a village resident who had gone into the forest for hunting small animals. When confronted by a male tusker, he shot at it.
“Since the elephant tusks were intact, we were convinced that he was not a regular poacher,” Kanagaraj clarifies. The accused was taken into remand.
The second incident occurred a month later in March 2022 when an elephant came out of the forest, foraging into the farms. The farmer sitting watch in his machan (a platform erected on a tree, which serves as a watch tower) noticed it and fired. Injured in the abdomen and in pain, the elephant retreated into the forest. Later, the patrol team found it dead and an investigation led to the farmer being taken into custody.
“During the two years of COVID-19, there were more dead elephants since people went into the forest for food,” says Kanagaraj. “While resident elephants in this region number around sixty, it’s the migrating elephants counting between 200-250 that become casualties. We aimed to mitigate this,” he adds.
As part of their drive, the forest department worked hand in hand with village heads of the seven ranges, interacted with the public through ‘thinai pracharam’ (verandah discussions), and conducted contests for school children.
According to D. Sukumar, a forest range officer at Jawalagiri range, hunting inside the forest has reduced considerably over the years. “Those into hunting today are over fifty years,” says Sukumar. “The young generation left villages to work outside. But when they visit home during weekends and holidays, our patrol team becomes more vigilant since they go into the forest for shooting. It’s a fun exercise for them.”
Counting the assistance of village heads significant in the drive, he says, “We made them the ambassadors as they have the power to influence their villagers. They are much respected and they stand by their people during any problem or court cases.”
Surrender of illegal weapons
The guns started trickling in slowly and the date for surrender was extended to September 30. Some were left in bushes, some at temples, and the department was intimated. Others left their guns with their panchayat or village heads and the forest officials picked them up later.
Denkanikottai received the highest number of illegal guns at 46, followed by 40 guns collected at Jawalagiri and 13 guns gathered in Anchetty. In Urigam, five guns were surrendered with Hosur and Krishnagiri receiving four and three guns respectively.
“These country-made guns are owned by families and much treasured. They are passed on from generation to generation,” says Sukumar. A similar drive to encourage the surrender of guns was conducted a few years ago, before COVID19, and 22 guns were handed over to the forest team.
“This tally of 111 guns is the highest in Tamil Nadu so far. There could be more guns hidden. We need to exercise pressure with search warrants,” says Sukumar.
R. Chennaiyirappa, village headman of Mathikeri in Jawalagiri for the past ten years says, “There are no more guns in my village. We made a complete sweep of everything. Guns were surrendered in my house and I informed forest officials.”
“The guns were owned mostly by tribals and were used for hunting in the past. These people are now in cultivation. I convinced them to surrender guns and [informed them] on the need to protect the elephants,” he adds.
H. Nagaraj, another village headman in Hosur accompanied forest officials on their drive into villages and was instrumental in the surrender of twelve guns. However, he says the need of the hour is torch lights for the protection of villagers from elephants.
Chennaiyirappa endorses the same. “When elephants stray into farms, they can be driven away with torch lights. I assured my people that I will speak to the authorities and arrange for the distribution of torch lights.”
Panchayat head B.K. Ganesh Reddy, who is a native of Bimasandiram village and President of Farmers’ Association, played an active role in collecting sixteen guns within his jurisdiction. “We live close to the Karnataka border and barely two kilometers from the forest area. While Karnataka forest officials are better equipped in dealing with elephants, the Tamil Nadu forest officials require more reinforcements and patrolling vehicles. The wild boar is a dangerous animal and fatal to humans. We need torches too,” Reddy asserts.
It was a momentous day on September 30, 2022, when 111 guns were handed over to the police department in the presence of Arvind B.K., Assistant Superintendent of Police, Hosur; Assistant Conservator of Forests, N. Vengatesh Prabhu; and Assistant Conservator of Forests (Forest Protection), M. Raja Muniyappan.
Shields felicitating the exemplary work of 36 forest officials and 17 panchayat heads were also distributed by Kanagaraj.
Banner image: Wildlife Warden Karthikeyani Kanagaraj presenting a shield to B.K. Ganesh Reddy, Panchayat Head. Photo by Tamil Nadu Forest Department.