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Karnataka's decision to catch elephants in Hassan district is laudable

The Karnataka High Court on Tuesday cleared a proposal to catch and shift rampaging wild elephants to ease man-elephant conflict. In September 2012, the HC had set up the Karnataka Elephant Task Force to study the severe conflict in Hassan district. Now that the recommendation of the task force has been accepted, the state will soon launch a drive to capture wild elephants more than four decades after the practice was abandoned.

The decision has upset many. Some see in it the dark revival of a cruel practice. Others call it a violation of animal rights. And some even dubbed the approach archaic. But, the move to capture and remove the marauders is actually good news — not only for the people of Alur taluka but also for the endangered elephant.

There is a thin line separating wildlife conservation from animal welfare and it gets blurred too often. Bleeding heart activists can afford to be irrational. But even experts in the emerging science of conservation have ethical trappings. Their approach, as a result, is usually oriented towards the conservation or welfare of a few individual animals rather than — and even at the cost of — a species.

In India, this attitude has led to a militant demand for tolerance. This is not to be confused with the traditional tolerance towards wildlife in this ancient land based on an understanding of the ways of the wild. This neo-tolerance is a construct of urban activism that itself is far removed from the theatres of man-animal conflict but demands that the rural poor tolerate wild animals no matter what.

An elephant is seen in this file photo. Reuters

An elephant is seen in this file photo. Reuters

This means a complete embargo on killing. Even the rare permit to gun down a tiger or a leopard after recurrent loss of human lives triggers angry protests. Victims of crop-raiding herbivores are worse off because unlike loss of life, loss of livelihood does not involve the blood and gore to demand retaliatory action. Of all species, conflict elephants are potentially the most damaging because they can destroy both livelihood and life.

Forest staff then began shifting problem animals. But catching and releasing animals elsewhere turned out to be more problematic. First, since shifting was not killing, interventions became more frequent than necessary. Secondly, the intervention was more arbitrary than targeted since few bothered about tracking and identifying the problem animals.

Eventually, biologists pointed out how removing animals in fact creates rather than controls conflict. New animals unfamiliar with local dynamics move in to occupy areas emptied by the removal of resident animals. Shifted animals find themselves in unfamiliar territory and try to walk long distances back home. Both scenarios increase the chances of man-animal interface and conflict.

Soon, as on killing, the stand on shifting became rigid. Coexistence, a time-tested reality based on principles of mutual benefit, was now imposed on every victim of conflict. Herdsmen, for example, often do not mind losing a few animals to leopards because they get free forest fodder and firewood. But how does one justify frequent human casualties in a 200 sq km stretch of which merely 5 sq km is forested?

That is why Hassan’s conflict zone is in a permanent state of emergency. The elephants are few – less than 30 – but they depend entirely on the crowded cropland. On an average, one person is killed every four months while injuries are routine across 79 affected villages. People seldom venture out after sundown till late in the morning. The forest staff has been attacked on occasion and a number of elephants have been killed in retaliation.

The task force found that “the current population of elephants in the Alur region did not exist there 30-40 years ago, but is a dispersing population from some larger population (most probably from the south)”. These 26-odd elephants are completely cut off from other herds of the state and by themselves do not constitute a viable population.

The task force also ruled out building natural corridors as the animals, used to roaming the cropland, were not likely to take such paths back to the forests from where they had wandered out. If anything, such corridors would only bring more elephants to these agricultural fields.

To create a suitable habitat, the report pointed out, the government would have to acquire around 200 sq km of private land at a minimum cost of Rs 2,500 crore and resettle tens of thousands of people. Even such expenditure would not ensure a long-term future of this small, isolated herd. So it recommended that all these elephants be captured and -- since they cannot be killed or released elsewhere -- trained to be used by the forest department.

Of course, no solution is foolproof. There is yet no explanation as to why these elephants moved here from the southern forests in the first place. Though no influx has been recorded in the past two decades, it is important to identify the factors that may trigger future dispersal and put checks in place.

The state forest department, meanwhile, ran away with the court order. It set a limit of capturing 150 animals though there are no more than 30 in Alur. Apparently, the state wants to use the opportunity to capture elephants from other troubled zones, such as Kodagu, without studying the local dynamics of conflict. It will, however, be a criminal misuse of the HC clearance which is only for Alur and Savandurga (Tumkur) as per the task force’s recommendations.

While Rs 4 crore has been earmarked for creating elephant camps for housing and training the captured animals, the state is apparently planning to release some 30 elephants from the present stock of 91 animals in 10 camps to free up space. It is a recipe for conflict because captive-bred elephants rarely survive in the wild and are likely to gravitate towards human habitations for food.

These deviations show the perennial dangers of ad hoc-ism but ethical or quasi-scientific absolutism is not the alternative. Instead of treating all proposals of culling or translocation as bloodthirsty or pedestrian, experts and activists should let the specifics of each situation determine decisions. The task force has shown the way in Hassan.

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