Why relocating badly behaved wild elephants doesn't work

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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On 20 January 2012, the Ministry constituted a task force to study the elephant issue, and “undertake consultation with a view to considering translocation of problem elephants, with people.” Four days later, the Chief Justice called the formation of the task force a “prima facie interference in the proceedings of the Court.” The state government then declared that it will not move these elephants to other reserves. The Ministry dissolved the task force and on 26 January, the Court formed a new one.

What can be done to alleviate suffering of people while also protecting elephants? We know translocated animals have a tendency to return to their original homes. The two bulls moved over 150 kilometres away last year returned in a matter of months, causing conflict along the way. If they cannot find their way, they travel erratically over a wide area, causing problems where there were likely none before.

Since elephants are social animals living in family groups, that grieve when a single member of its family dies, translocating them in arbitrary groups of five can traumatize them. In Sri Lanka, displaced family groups prevented from returning to their original homes have starved to death. A study of 150 forced movements of elephants in Africa suggested that they suffered greater chances of dying than resident ones.

 Why relocating badly behaved wild elephants doesnt work

Displacing elephants could traumatize the largely social animals: Reuters

The fate of 13 elephants translocated from Hassan District in the 1980s is unknown. Although their removal reduced conflict for a few years, we don’t know whether they caused trouble in their new home. An intensive study of animal displacements across the world concluded that the vast majority of these translocations have failed to solve conflict.

Not only do the animals pay an enormous price, psychologically and physically, in such an operation, there is no guarantee this will reduce crop damages in Hassan District or provide relief to its people. As indicated by the 2007 report, elephants from other areas have moved here over time. Removing resident animals will not deter such immigration and in time conflict will recur. Would the solution then be to move them again? And again?

Since the 2007 report, written on the basis of a two-day field visit, no new studies have been undertaken. Not knowing how many elephants use the matrix of forests-coffee estates-farmland and what routes they use to move between them is a handicap to finding a sustainable solution.

Given the heightened state of tension in the area and to prevent local people from taking matters into their own hands, the Forest Department considers translocating these animals a risk worth taking. In reality it may be no more than a public relations exercise. Buying up private property to set up a reserve is an option, but at current real estate prices, it is beyond the state’s budget. The plan includes blocking the pathway, to prevent further colonization of this area by elephants from the south.

It’s possible that these 25 pachyderms will return or make the lives of people living elsewhere miserable. It’s also possible that the attempts to prevent further colonization of this area by other elephants from the south may fail. Or these dispersing animals may be diverted to areas that never faced conflict before. Should problems with these giant herbivores worsen, perhaps the only remaining option would be to take them into captivity, causing even further distress to the wild animals.

Although this is a frustrating situation with no easy answers, this is a good opportunity to learn a few lessons. How could this situation have been avoided? What do these elephants do once moved out of their homes? How do blocked pathways affect pachyderm movement from the south? Only experience will tell.

Ultimately, elephants and humans both pay the price when development projects pay no heed to animal occupancy. As more and more projects are slated to gnaw away at elephant habitat, more conflict hotspots are likely to erupt. The only way to forestall this is to adopt the concept of Managed Elephant Reserves as the Sri Lankans are trying to do. Development plans for the next 20 years should be overlaid on maps of elephant habitat and movement to create viable conservation zones. We need to think and plan on the scale of landscapes, instead of itsy-bitsy forests, if a large mammal like the elephant is to be protected.

Updated Date: Mar 05, 2012 11:33:59 IST