No quick fix for man-elephant conflict (Karnataka)
G T Sathish, The Hindu
December 8, 2023
Meena, a 32-year-old worker, had just reached the coffee plantation in
Galigundi near Aldur in Chikkamagaluru district on November 8 morning,
along with fellow workers. She was about to have breakfast when she
encountered a wild tusker. She froze in shock and the pachyderm trampled
her to death and moved on nonchalantly.
Watching tamed elephants take a stroll on the city streets as part of the
Dasara procession inspires awe. But encountering a tusker in the wild or in
the coffee estates of Hassan and Chikkamagaluru districts can be very
dangerous. Like Meena, many have died in the two districts in the last 20
years. Since August 8 (Elephant Day), six people have died in elephant
attacks in the two neighbouring districts. Among them, two were working for
the Forest Department.
Two from Department
H.H. Venkatesh, 67, popularly known as Aane Venkatesh, was trampled to
death by a tusker during the elephant capture operation in Alur taluk of
Hassan on August 31. Karthik Gowda, 26, who was part of the Elephant Task
Force, succumbed to injuries in a similar attack at Byrapura, near
Mudigere, on November 22. Both lost their lives in their efforts to
minimise man-elephant conflict in the region.
Besides, Kavitha, 37, an agricultural labourer, died in Vadur of Hassan on
August 18. Kinni, 60, of Durga village in Chikkamagaluru, died on October
23, and Dipak Ray, 54, a construction worker from West Bengal, died in an
elephant attack at Ankihalli in Belur taluk on October 27.
These deaths in a short period highlight the severity of the problem that
local people have been facing. Spread over several herds, wild elephants
roam in parts of Sakaleshpur, Alur, Belur, Mudigere, and Chikkamagalur
taluks. Before getting out of the house, people have to check on the latest
alert from the Forest Department about the location of the herds. The
department sends messages on the location of elephants through WhatsApp.
The members of Rapid Response Teams, formed by involving local youths, keep
track of herds and inform the people. Similarly, the department has a
system to track the movement of herds, as radio collars have been installed
on several female elephants that lead the herds.
Yet, conflicts occur and lead to deaths. Given the increasing number of
elephants, it has been difficult for the department to keep track of all
elephants and alert the public. In the past, there were incidents in which
children playing near their houses were killed, schoolchildren were
charged, bikers were attacked, and houses were raided.
The forest department staff and caretakers of tamed elephants successfully
captured a tusker in Belur on November 28.
The forest department staff and caretakers of tamed elephants successfully
captured a tusker in Belur on November 28. | Photo Credit: SPECIAL
Loss to Farmers
Besides the threat to human lives, the elephants roaming in the fields have
caused a heavy loss to growers. Many farmers have lost their crops despite
putting in a lot of effort and money. A stroll by a herd of elephants in an
estate uproots coffee plants nurtured for years, impacting the yield. The
compensation paid towards crop loss is meagre considering the input cost.
Added to that is the time required to cultivate the same again. Local
people have staged protests on several occasions demanding the state and
central governments capture all elephants and relocated.
However, the laws of the land and the court directions do not support
en-masse relocation of elephants. Environmentalists argue that damage
caused to the forest cover, particularly the elephant corridor, in the name
of widening highways, laying railway tracks, power projects, laying power
lines, and mega irrigation projects are the cause of increased man-elephant
conflicts. Animal lovers opine that elephants are in their place, while it
is human beings who have encroached upon the animals’ space.
With this situation on the ground, the Forest Department often takes up the
exercise of capturing elephants, particularly those causing trouble, and
shifting them to a different places. There have been many such drives in
the past. A major drive to relocate 22 elephants was carried out in Hassan
in 2013–14. Since 1986, the department has translocated more than 80
elephants. Whenever such operations are conducted, incidents of
man-elephant encounters have come down, at least for a few months. However,
within a short span, the incidents recur, forcing the department to jump
into action again.
The Forest Department gave clearance to capture three elephants in
Chikkamagaluru and Mudigere taluks and relocate them to Bhadra Tiger
Reserve in November this year. The operation is still going on. Similarly,
another operation is going on in Hassan, where the task is to capture nine
elephants and fix radio collars. As per the plan, the tuskers would be
translocated and female elephants would be freed in the same place. As
female elephants lead the herds, it would be possible to track their
movements with the help of radio collars.
A Tough Task
The department staff and caretakers of the tamed elephants that take part
in the elephant capture operations have a tough task. Veterinarians, who
accompany the teams, risk their lives to fire tranquillizer darts that help
sedate the animals. Dr. Vinay S., veterinarian of Shivamogga Wildlife
Division, had multiple injuries after he was attacked by an elephant during
one such operation in Channagiri in April this year. He recovered after
spending months in the hospital. H.H. Venkatesh, who was part of the team
in Hassan, died during the operation as a tusker trampled him. Similarly,
Karthik Gowda, a member of the elephant task force, died in similar
circumstances in Chikkamagaluru.
“Darting an elephant is not an easy task,” says a veterinarian involved in
such operations. One has to study the terrain, understand the weight of the
animal, and ensure there is no danger to the animal around. “We can gauge
the age by analysing its footprints. One has to ensure there is no water
body nearby, as there are chances of animals falling into the water after
it is tranquilized. Besides that, there are many factors that deserve
attention. There is a set protocol to follow,” he said.
Death of Elephants
The officers and veterinarians have attracted a lot of criticism following
the two recent incidents that led to the deaths of two elephants. In
Chikkamagaluru, a tusker, which was identified for capture, died during the
operation at Mekanagadde in Mudigere taluk on December 2. The elephant died
after the tranquillizer dart was fired. Even after clear instructions from
the senior officers to follow the rules and guidelines, the operation was
carried out late in the night, according to sources in the department.
However, the officers concluded that it died accidentally.
In the latest case, Arjuna, the tusker, died during the operation at Yeslur
Range of Forest in Sakaleshpur taluk. The incident left thousands of people
across the state mourning as the elephant was popular. He had carried the
golden howdah of Mysuru Dasara eight times. Besides that, Arjuna had
participated in elephant capture operations and led a team of other tamed
and trained elephants successfully. He died in a fight with a wild
elephant. In the meantime, the department captured another tusker in
Chikkamagaluru and shifted the same to elephant camp, though there was
clear instruction to relocate it. The officers maintained that the elephant
required care as it suffered injuries in the operation.
Such incidents highlight the need for proper training for the officials,
the staff, and the caretakers of elephants. Minister for Forests Eshwar
Khandre, after these incidents, has said that the department will give
importance to training the staff on how to conduct the elephant capture
No System to Train
Interestingly, there is no system to train caretakers of elephants. Only
those who are already into handling elephants train their children
unofficially. There is no chance for others to enter the field. During the
recent recruitments to fill up vacancies for elephant caretakers, it was
evident that there were no trained candidates, except for those from the
families of people already doing the job. And elephants obey only the
orders of their mahouts.