Rogue elephants in the backyard

  • 14/08/1994

Rogue elephants in the backyard SEVEN-and-a-half ha of fertile swampland, ideally suited for paddy cultivation, and endowed with several species of commercially valuable trees like rosewood and teak, would seem like a bequest to trumpet about. But for 60-year-old Raghavan Chettiar, the inheritance of just such a plot in Tamil Nadu"s Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary has only proved to be a legacy of suffering.

Every year, marauding elephants invade his patch of rice and destroy up to 50 per cent of his crop. Chettiar can do nothing about it -- except make a noise -- and he sinks deeper and deeper into debt.

Chettiar"s land is within a protected area, and although the forest department has yet to compensate him for the crop loss, it has denied him the right to sell a part of it or any of the trees to repay his heavy debts. Even banks are wary of extending loans to him because they don"t consider his elephant-prone land adequate collateral.

Chettiar lives in one of the 8 small settlements within Mudumalai sanctuary. He and 1,107 Mundam Chetties -- farmers by tradition -- occupy 260 ha of land in these settlements. They have no choice but to depend on firecrackers and vocal chords to drive away the rampaging elephants.

The farmers are more than willing to move out of the sanctuary, provided they are compensated adequately. For 30 years now, the forest department has repeatedly promised them land outside the sanctuary. Since the "60s, 4 proposals were drawn up by forest officials -- the latest in 1993 -- but nothing has come out of them.

With not a single case of compensation paid for crop loss, the apathy the farmers have learnt to live with makes a mockery of one of the professed "strategies" of Project Elephant: "eco-development and mitigation of human-elephant conflicts to nurture and restore the traditional compassion and tolerance of the people living in and around elephant habitats".

Traditional compassion and tolerance may be hard to reinforce among people who have to compete with elephants for survival. But a more pragmatic approach by officials of the forest department and Project Elephant, the centrally sponsored scheme launched in 1991 to protect and manage elephant populations, could succeed in reducing human-elephant conflicts.

According to an 11-year study by the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) on the behavioural ecology of the Asian elephant in Mudumalai, many strategies adopted by the forest department to deal with the human-elephant problem have done more harm than good. "One of the basic flaws," says wildlife scientist Ajay Desai, who headed the BNHS study, "has been a total disregard for the elephants" behaviour and requirements."

The study dealt with, among other things, a vital question: why do elephants raid crops? Desai and research students N Baskaran and S Swaminathan marked out female elephants from several clans and 7 adult males. Initially, they kept track of the elephants by identifying physical characteristics such as cuts in the ears, the shape of tusks and hair patterns of the tail. But in 1991, funds from the US Fish and Wildlife Service enabled Desai to initiate a telemetric study -- the first successful one on Asian elephants. Three females and 2 bulls were radio-collared. A daily track of the movements and activities of Salim Ali and Admiral, the 2 male elephants, and the clans of Priyanka, Harini and Wendy over 3 years provided the BNHS team with a wide database.

Habitat degradation
The study first addressed the effect of habitat loss and degradation -- caused by human activity -- on elephant behaviour. Each herd is led by a matriarch and consists of females and juvenile males. Between the ages of 10 and 15, the males break away from the family herd and define a range of their own. Thereafter, they associate with clans mainly for mating.

The team worked on the premise that if loss of habitat or its degradation was what led elephants to raid crops, then the affected elephants would be the ones to opt for crops. And if elephants had to be captured and domesticated in order to control human-elephant conflicts, then the actual culprits would have to be caught.

The BNHS study showed that clans that had lost a large part of their range and did not have sufficient resources were indeed driven to crop-raiding. It found that the greater the forest loss, the higher the instances of raiding.

When a degraded range can no longer support the elephants, the animals either move to another range, live on the periphery of their home range and survive on crops, or wander in search of new areas.

The first option is rarely taken up -- other ranges already have elephant populations, which zealously defend their habitats from intruding clans. Invariably, the elephants move out to the periphery to live off crops or set out in search of new areas -- which are hard to come by. In both cases, human-elephant conflicts are bound to arise.

In the past, when forest departments captured elephants from a trouble-making herd, they targeted mostly young animals because they are easy to train. In Assam and Meghalaya, when blanket orders were given for the capture of 200 animals a few years ago, mostly sub-adult animals were picked up. But this did little towards solving the problem.

Desai points out that the random capture of elephants is impractical for 2 reasons. The study suggested whole clans were responsible for raiding crops because all the elephants in a herd tend to follow the same feeding strategy. Besides, the ranges of 2 clans or bull elephants could overlap and only 1 clan may be responsible for crop raiding. Haphazard capture could mean both raiders and non-raiders are snared, wasting part of the effort. In both cases, unless all the members of the raiding clan are removed and defused, the problem will continue.

Elephant supermarkets
The BNHS investigation debunks an earlier study by Raman Sukumar of Bangalore"s Indian Institute of Science, who suggested that elephants raid crops as part of an "optimal feeding strategy". This tactic ostensibly enabled elephants to acquire more nutrition with less effort and gave them a tastier alternative to forest grasses. Agricultural areas near forests were thought to be "elephant supermarkets" (as described by the Project Elephant report) that attracted the elephants even though sufficient resources were available in the forests.

Sukumar had also suggested that male elephants plunder crops more often than females and that they also cause greater damage. He believed bulls took greater risks to obtain more nutritious food because they had to compete for mating. In terms of restricting the damage caused by elephants, Sukumar had suggested that removing 20 males would be "equivalent to removing 200 female clan members". Based on one of his papers in Biological Conservation (1991), the first project document prepared by the task force of Project Elephant suggests that "culling of males while maintaining appropriate minimum size in populations" be examined as one of the measures to control the elephant problem because "male elephants cause more damage".

The BNHS study showed that, contrary to the bull-is-the-main-culprit belief, female clans could do more harm than males -- in terms of total damage. The study also found that not all males are crop raiders and that even though some males have ready access to crops, they do not raid them.

It is this fact that is of relevance in managing a raiding problem. "Although one adult bull may cause more damage than one female of a clan," says Desai, "there are more clan elephants in an area than adult males."

Simply removing bull elephants without identifying the culprit is not practical for another reason, says Desai. Prized for their tusks, male Asian elephants have fallen prey to poaching, which has resulted in extremely biased sex ratios with fewer males in most elephant populations in India. Although the protected areas around Mudumalai have a large elephant population, the "effective breeding population," according to one study, was less than 500 due to selective poaching of males till the mid-"80s.

Vanishing corridors
Over the past 7 years, Desai and his team have made several recommendations on how to avoid further trouble between humans and elephants in Mudumalai. The sanctuary is part of a network that links it with Karnataka"s Bandipur Tiger Reserve and Nagarhole National Park and Kerala"s Wynad Wildlife Sanctuary. Along with their adjoining reserve forests, the 4 parks cover more than 2,300 sq km and support a population of 1,800 to 2,300 elephants -- the largest elephant population in the largest protected elephant range in Asia. "If the Asian elephant has a hope of survival, it is in areas like this," says Desai.

However, Desai found certain vital corridors used by the elephants during their annual movement had narrowed down dangerously. He warned that if these corridors disappeared, the elephants would be hemmed into small areas that would not be able sustain them and conflicts would arise. Moreover, the loss of corridors would splinter one of the few areas large enough to sustain elephants and also cut off a crucial genetic link between Western Ghat and Eastern Ghat elephants.

The bottlenecks in the corridors are either privately owned forest land, which can be purchased easily by the forest department, or patches of reserve forest and forested revenue land, which simply need to be protected.

In 1991, Desai published a paper on how to save the corridors. Although protecting important corridors is very much on the Project Elephant agenda, very little has been done about it so far. When asked why the recommendations were not carried out, Mudumalai"s wildlife warden P Jagdish had a peculiar response: "The research they are doing is for BNHS -- not for us." The additional inspector general of forests (wildlife), S C Dey, took refuge in stating that there were not enough funds to buy the land in question.

But funds have been squandered either on trying to improve areas that hold no future for elephants or on measures that have already proved futile. For instance, money has been spent on barbed and chain-link fences to keep cattle out of elephant territory. But this is basically money wasted because the fences are not elephant-proof and are broken easily. Similarly, trenches, which cost a pile to dig in the first place, don"t work either -- they fill up too soon.

The budget proposals drawn up by the 3 state governments for the parks are often as unrealistic as they are arbitrary. Mudumalai sanctuary, for example, was allotted Rs 2.8 lakh from the Project Elephant funds for 1992-93. According to Jagdish, Rs 2 lakh was budgeted for wireless sets, Rs 50,000 for weed eradication, Rs 25,000 for publicity and Rs 5,000 for compensation for human deaths and crop loss. However, compensation for each death is fixed at Rs 5,000 and at least 3 men were killed by elephants that year. So while Chettiar and the other farmers in the Mudumalai villages languish without reparation, Rs 25,000 is spent on putting up concrete sign boards that proclaim, Crucial Elephant Habitat Zone deep in the forest.

Desai points out that very often, resources are invested in ineffective measures to deal with fragmented elephant populations -- herds that get incarcerated in patches of degraded forest. In Chandka Wildlife Sanctuary near Bhubaneswar in Orissa, about 60 elephants are trapped in less than 200 sq km of degraded forest surrounded by agricultural land. More than Rs 2 crore has been pumped in to put up electric fences and dig trenches, but the elephants keep getting out.

Similarly, killings and crop damage have become routine all along the 300-km migratory route of a herd of 13 to 18 elephants, which troop down from Porahat in Bihar to Surguja district in Madhya Pradesh every winter. Since 1988, the Madhya Pradesh government has spent massive amounts as compensation and huge sums in trying to retain the elephants within an area with electric fencing, but without much success.

Expensive relocation
In some cases, forest departments "translocate" problem herds to healthier habitats. This is an extremely expensive operation that involves tranquilising the elephants and transporting them in trucks to the new area. But as V Krishnamurthy, a veterinary doctor specialising in captive elephants who worked with the BNHS team, points out, this operation is a waste of money: translocated elephants will try to head back to their original home range -- even though they can"t -- and cause enough trouble trying.

Krishnamurthy remembers 2 bulls that were translocated more than 400 km from their original range in the forests of Tiruppattur in Tamil Nadu, where they were raiding crops, to prime elephant habitat in the Indira Gandhi National Park in the Annamalai hills. Although both were released in the middle of the park, they found their way to the periphery within a week and began raiding crops, killing 1 farmer. Both had to be recaptured and sent to training camps. They are now working for the forest department.

The best way to deal with fragmented populations like the ones in Chandka and Porahat, says Desai, would be to first capture and domesticate the problem elephants. Resources now being used to control fragmented populations should then be pumped into habitats large enough to maintain a viable population of elephants. If there are too many elephants for forest departments to maintain in captivity, culling has to be considered.

However, the option of culling as a solution is hotly disputed and some experts feel it could lead to a depletion of elephant genes. But Desai points out that the genetic diversity of isolated herds is lost to other elephants anyway, because genetic exchange cannot take place.

In and around protected forest areas, when the elephant population exceeds the carrying capacity, carefully regulated capture and culling, based on reliable area-specific research, may also have to be considered, says Desai.

Some scientists believe that elephant populations regulate themselves and when their numbers get too high, a population crash will bring them down again. In Tsavo National Park in Kenya, for example, when the elephant population began building up, a study suggested that they would have to be culled. But the culling was delayed because others questioned this line of thinking.

Before anything could be done, a drought struck Tsavo and more than 10,000 elephants died. The drought also affected the vegetation and other herbivores, including endangered rhinos. However, the ivory from the dead elephants was lost or pilfered. The death of these elephants benefitted nobody. Perhaps it would have been better to have culled the elephants than let nature take its course.

Desai also points out that such natural cycles work only in extremely large ecosystems where the effects of overpopulation and overutilisation of resources are localised. But the biggest reserve in India would be only a fraction of the size of Tsavo. Besides, while Tsavo has adjoining forests, the periphery area of Indian reserves consists of human habitats and farms.

Managing what remains of India"s elephant population today is a tightrope act, requiring a sagely combination of science and forceful implementation of management techniques. But unfortunately, the concept of using science as a management tool is yet to take root in India.