Drought in the Western Ghats Part 4: In Kerala's Wayanad, acute water scarcity leading to man-animal conflict
The problem in Wayanad is worse than in other places, because it's well-known for its spices cultivation since the time of the British Raj, and is one place where the divide between forest land and human settlements is still very vague
Editor's note: This is the fourth piece in a multi-part series on the nature of human excesses that have imperiled the fragile ecosystem of the Western Ghats, home to at least 325 globally threatened species of flora and fauna, by United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization's reckoning.
The intense drought sweeping across the Western Ghats is having an ugly fall-out along the villages bordering the forests of Wayanad and Palakkad in north Kerala. Man-animal conflict is at its peak here. In almost every area of these districts where forests are present, reports of crop raids and destruction by wild elephants come in thick and fast on a daily basis.
The elephants seem to be making a desperate dash for food and water, as the forests wilt and water holes inside dry up. Villagers are in the throes of fear and uncertainty, as forest officials run from pillar to post to salvage the situation.
The Wayanad division alone has distributed Rs 83 lakhs as compensation to the villagers this financial year for crop losses and other destruction.
"It is indeed a grave situation in Wayanad. To start with, all the elephant corridors have been disrupted by human settlements. So when the heat reaches unbearable levels, the animals will surely start moving out in search of food and water. Almost every time they end up in these settlements, raiding the crops and destroying homes. We are on tenterhooks almost every day but still have no idea how to get over this," said P Daneshkumar, DCF and Wildlife warden, Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary.
The warden said that the problem in Wayanad is worse than in other places. This is because Wayanad is well-known for its spices cultivation since the time of the British Raj, and is one place where the divide between forest land and human settlements is still very vague. "A lot of forest land was assigned for human settlement by the British. There are close to 57 enclosures inside the forests with 104 settlements, which have 2,670 households containing both tribal and non-tribal natives. We haven't been able to shift them out. This, along with those living in the forests' fringes, add to the issue," Daneshkumar added.
Muthanga, a vital part of the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary with a lot of human population, has been bearing the brunt for the last three months. Villagers here live in fear and anxiety, as they are raided night after night by marauding elephants.
Valsan, a 50-year-old farmer, lives in Kalloor, a short distance from Muthanga. Although they are occasionally prone to crop raids by wild elephants, he says the last two months have been worst he had ever seen.
Sensing trouble this time round, Valsan decided that digging trenches around his cultivation alone might not stop the pachyderms. He went ahead and established electric fencing supported by solar power. But much to his dismay, the elephants easily brought it down at night.
"The situation is terrible. It is not just elephants, although they are the most common ones. We are raided on a daily basis by monkeys, wild boars and even deer. Most farmers are in debt due to huge crop losses," Valsan told Firstpost.
Valsan has an acre of land where he has cultivated paddy and some spices and fruit-bearing trees like jackfruit. While the cultivation expenditure may run to anywhere between Rs 25,000 to 30,000, one odd crop raid by a group of elephants often spells doom. Valsan says he does not even want to count his losses, as it is a futile exercise.
That Wayanad falls exactly at the point where forest ranges from two adjoining states meet — Tamil Nadu to the right and Karnataka to the left — makes the man-animal conflict even more severe. The sanctuary itself is contiguous to the protected areas of Bandipore in Karnataka to the northeast, and Mudumalai to the south.
Ramdas who lives in Sulthan Batheri is an environmental activist and a reputed journalist. He says the situation is getting worse every year. "Wayanad, which is a part of the Nilgiris' biosphere, is blessed with water most of the year. So even when there is acute drought, Wayanad is usually left with some water. That is precisely why elephants flock to the forests from elsewhere. And because poaching is almost zero, the elephant population has increased considerably. So it's not a surprise that when they don't have enough food and water, they come out to this area in large numbers," Ramdas told Firstpost.
It was one such misadventure which has landed the tusker whom we now call 'Kalloor Komban' in a wooden cage at Kalloor near Muthanga. The elephant was on a crop raiding spree across these villages, destroying Valsan's cultivation and a couple of houses in the area among others.
Forest officials had to work overtime to tranquilise him and move him to a makeshift shelter using trained temple elephants called "kumkis". But when the time came to release him back to the forest, locals started to protest outside the forest office.
As news about his exploits spread, a plan to shift him further south, to the Parambikulam National Park, also did not bear fruit, as the villagers there too sat on the road in the protest.
Even an order from the chief minister had to be withdrawn, and Kalloor Komban, however villainous he might be when he raided the villages, is made to wait it out in a wooden box.
Animal activists say there is nothing crueler than holding a wild elephant captive in a wooden box for six moths.
Nibha Namboodiri is an activist who had been raising the jumbos' issues at many forums. She warns about an impending tragedy if Komban is kept under captivity for long. "We had an instance in the past, of losing a wild elephant under similar circumstances, in 2005. So it is imperative that we act fast, reach a consensus and release him at the earliest. It is foolish of us to believe that all elephants which are translocated and released will become crop raiders again," added Nibha.
But villagers like P Lekshmanan have no such sympathy. He says that he had three acres of land on which he had pepper, coffee, plantain and paddy cultivations. But continuous elephant raids after seven in the evening completely destroyed it. Now people have quit cultivation altogether. "Earlier, elephants used to do the same but never attacked us. This year they are much more aggressive. Maybe it's the heat and the non-availability of water that's causing this. But we live in eternal fear. Also, people are stopping cultivation as there is no way you can protect it. Most of them are in debt as well," Lekshmanan said.
He added that the eating habits of the elephants also seems to have changed, as jackfruit and banana are now among their favourite foods rather than bamboo and acacia, a claim that experts agree with.
Forest officials say that the failure of bamboo crop along forests in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu owing to successive drought, and the easy availability of jackfruit and pineapple on the forest fringes, may have pushed the elephants to fruit crops; and the pachyderms are unlikely to stop eating these fruits once they taste them.
Further south on Kerala's map is Attapadi in Palakkad district, another flashpoint bordering the forests of Tamil Nadu. Here, scientists have discovered that the extent of drought in Tamil Nadu's forests has been so bad that the failure of the usual acacia and bamboo has forced the animals to turn to a plant called the "agave", a thorny Mexican bush that grows well in the summer heat. The agave, since it is thorny, is often used for natural fencing. The outcome, however, is that the elephants have started devouring these fences apart from crushing the electric ones.
Raman, who lives with his family at Attapadi, says he has never seen such destruction in his lifetime. "Close to 20 kilometres of electric fencing have been destroyed here. We are scared to even step out once it is dark," added Raman.
Lekshmanan, however, volunteers another solution. He says that rail track fences are perhaps the only way out to keep the tuskers at bay, after the trenches and electric fences failed. It's a mixture of used tracks thrown away by the railways and concrete that would be used to make such fences. Though Karnataka has used these in patches, forest officials here are not fully convinced about its viability over vast areas in Wayanad and Palakkad.
Meanwhile, authorities at the Kerala forest department have stepped in with some stop gap solutions over the last few months. Since water is the main crisis, they have been trying to rejuvenate select watering holes in the forest's fringes by filing it with water carried in tanker lorries. In other areas where bamboos have vanished in large numbers, they are filling it up with new saplings.
Utopian efforts it might seem, but desperate times do call for desperate measures. However, inside the state's forest department, another and a more professional line of thought has emerged, which is now called the 'Forest for Water' policy.
Forest officials are calling it a paradigm shift in forest management where the priority will shift from plantations to look for forest resources of water, which means that rather than artificially planting forests, the department would now regenerate the natural forest by trying to improve and preserve the water resources available.
The first such effort of its kind in the country, the department says it involves a careful study of the resources across select areas with the help of a number of agencies and then align the resources in such a way as to enable maximum output.
"This would actually go a long way in mitigating future drought crises where more forests would mean more water which enabling your water bodies inside forests to stay live more time ensuring that the food for the animals also last longer," said SC Joshi, principal chief conservator of forests.
Hardly 75 kilometers away from the state capital Thiruvananthapuram, is Thenmala, where a leopard was caught in a barbed fence on Sunday and succumbed to its injuries before the forest officials could reach it. It is the latest in a number of such cases of big cats getting into trouble this year.
Efforts by the forest department to mitigate drought is likely to help prevent such man-animal conflict in the future, if implemented properly. But for this year, villagers live in fear while wildlife lives in hunger and thirst.
Part 1:Urbanisation demands see hills sacrificed to whims of mining, industry lobbies
Part 2:How deforestation saved ecologically-sensitive hills in Kerala
Part 3: Ambulance service supplies water to 700 families in Kerala's Kottayam
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