About 25 wild elephants are slated to be transplanted from around Kattepura and Dodbetta Reserve Forests, Hassan District in Karnataka, to other as-yet-undetermined locations. This is punishment for a long string of complaints against them. Since 2007, 14 people have been killed and many more injured by these giants. Besides loss of life and limb, cereal and tree crops are destroyed. In some cases, the entire year’s yield is lost in a single night. These damages are monetarily compensated by the State at predetermined rates, although often not to the satisfaction of victims.
Coffee estates close to forests are forced to pay their labour more than the prevailing rate, because of the danger from elephants. Several farmers have given up farming as the effort to ward off these giants hasn’t worked. People in the area say they have suffered enough and don’t want to live with the large herbivores anymore. Some elephants are said to have been electrocuted. As the management authority, the Karnataka Forest Department faces a public relations disaster.
In the mid 1980s, 13 elephants were removed from Hassan to reduce the problems people faced. Apparently this brought temporary relief, but conflict with pachyderms began rearing its scary head ten years later. A 2007 report by M.K. Appaya and Ajay Desai concludes that population growth of elephants alone is not to blame. Apparently pachyderms from the south have steadily moved in.
The same report narrates this sorry state of affairs came to pass because large tracts of forests were submerged by the Harangi and Hemavathi dams constructed in the late 1970s. Further development of agriculture ate into remaining forest areas, breaking them up into fragments. Kattepura and Dodbetta forests together offer little more than a paltry 5 square kilometres of wild habitat for the elephants. All these developments have reduced a once thriving population to a dead end, with no future. But there is an additional 300 square kilometres of thickly vegetated coffee estates. Elephants shelter in these private lands during the day and raid crops in surrounding farmlands at night.
The 2007 report blames the conflict on the inadequate and fragmented nature of the habitat. Agricultural and developmental changes which have occurred over the last four decades are irreversible today. Trapped within miniscule pockets of greenery, these elephants have no possibility of escape, and no food resource except crops.
The report says containing elephants with electric fences and trenches has not worked so far. Distances are great and the cost of installing fences or digging trenches is high. Besides, bits of forests are interlaced with coffee, making barriers an inappropriate method of separating people from pachyderms. Even if the area were successfully cordoned off, it would hem the elephants in the neighbouring district of Kodagu, where they will exacerbate the already high conflict. Regularly driving the giants into the itsy-bitsy fragments of forest has not solved the problem either, and now they do not even budge when firecrackers are set off. The Department invests more resources in managing these few animals than they do in good elephant habitats in the rest of the state. Under these circumstances, the report concludes there is no option but to remove the pachyderms, every single one of them.
Responding to the state’s submission, on 11 November 2011, the Ministry of Environment and Forests approved the translocation of elephants. Five days later, the Karnataka High Court, hearing a suo motu petition, directed the state to stop this action. A press report suggests that even the Forest Department wasn’t keen to move animals but had to kowtow to the wishes of the state Forest Minister, C.P. Yogeshwar. Soon after the Central Ministry gave its approval, the Minister had claimed all the elephants would be captured and sent to training camps to be tamed. After the Court injunction, he promised, “the elephant corridor in Hassan would be re-built”.
On 16 December 2011, a press report quoted B.K. Singh, the Principal Conservator of Forests (Wildlife) Karnataka, as saying that a task force would be constituted to study the elephants and their routes of travel and behaviour. However, on 4 January 2012, he brought additional information to court. He said coffee estates have created a gridlock of electric fences which trap elephants and indiscriminate ecotourism have further blocked a corridor. Additionally, invasive weeds have replaced elephant forage in reserves. While seeking direction from the court to remove these obstructions, he also suggested that since the translocation of two bulls had failed last year, family groups of five elephants at a time will be translocated.
But the Chief Justice refused to entertain the idea, “You said that a resort has come up at Bandipur on the corridors. Have you recommended for removal of the resort or the elephants? You should be protecting the animals, not people.” He continued, “Do not think elephants are causing problems; it is we who are causing problems for elephants. If the taskforce is based on this (translocation) platform, it would be better to wind up the same. You started on the wrong foot.”
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