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Maharashtra’s elephant circus

On the back of the recent border row between Maharashtra and Karnataka over Belgaum,here comes a territorial dispute of another sort.

Written by Prashant Rangnekar | Dodamarg & Sawantwadi | Published: February 16, 2009 11:27 pm

On the back of the recent border row between Maharashtra and Karnataka over Belgaum,here comes a territorial dispute of another sort. The Maharashtra Forest Department is in a bind over what to do with three elephants that strayed over from neighbouring Karnataka and caused havoc in the state. Already,the man-animal conflict in Kolhapur has claimed nine human lives and resulted in the deaths of five elephants,four of which were electrocuted by villagers.

With Bairagi,a 40-year-old tusker,and two-and-a-half-year-old Kolhapuri,an elephant calf,in its custody and another female wild elephant yet to be caught,the Forest Department is unsure of where to release the animals. These pachyderms were trapped by the Forest Department for causing mayhem in the two borders districts of Sindhudurg and Kolhapur,but the Government of Karnataka seems to have washed its hands of the animals.

“Since the Karnataka Government has refused to take back these elephants,we will leave them in an isolated area on the Maharashtra-Karnataka border,so that they can go back,” said a senior official involved in the operation of trapping the elephants. “We were planning to release them in the nearby Radhanagri sanctuary,but the department has denied us permission.” Two months ago,the state Forest Department had asked the Karnataka Government to take back the elephants. But the Government countered that Karnataka had 10,000 elephants and that Maharashtra was capable of managing a few of them,revealed Maharashtra Forest Secretary,J P Dange.

“There is no question of taking back the wild elephants as state boundaries are not for animals. This is a natural corridor and elephants have been using it routinely,” said Meera Saxena,Principal Secretary (Forest),Karnataka.

The densely forested Western ghats run through Maharashtra and Karnataka and the hill range serves as a traditional migratory route for wild animals. “In 2002,some 24 wild elephants strayed in Kolhapur and Sindhudurg districts of Maharashtra,as the neighbouring state was facing drought,” said Naresh Zurmure,Deputy Conservator of Forest (DCF),Sawantwadi. “Most of them went back in subsequent years,but a herd stayed back and started feeding on coconut,sugarcane and paddy crops.”

And here are the roots of the recent man-animal conflict that has claimed nine lives and injured more than 15 people in the five tehsils of Sindhudurg-Dodamarg,Sawantwadi,Malwan,Oras,Kudal,Vengurla,Chandgad and Gadhinglaj tehsils of Kolhapur. While four elephants were electrocuted by angry residents,another died of diarrohea after it was trapped by the state Forest Department.

The compensation for the destruction of trees and crops as well as that for the injured and dead has come to more than a whopping Rs 5 crore. Meanwhile,the Maharashtra Forest Department,has in the last one year identified entry points of elephants,dug resistant trenches,laid electric lines sufficient for administering mild electric shocks and set up enclosures that would make it difficult for the elephants to enter the state.

In the wake of the growing clamour to take action,the state Forest Department last month undertook the daunting mission of trapping these wild elephants (see box) to release them in the catchment area of Tilari dam on the Karnataka border. “It is an ideal location for the resettlement of these wild elephants. There’s plenty of water and the area is sparsely populated,as the villages there were relocated during the construction of the dam,” said Dange.

Meanwhile,at ground zero,discontent is growing. While Vijay,the six-year-old tusker trapped by the Forest Department from Sonurli village in Sawatwadi tehsil,was released at the Karnataka border two weeks ago,it returned to Mangeli village in Dodamarg tehsil on the Karnataka border. It was trapped again in February and is in the Department’s custody. Incidentally,this was the spot from which a herd of 24 elephants entered Maharashtra in 2002.

The residents of the border villages of Mangeli and Talewadi are,meanwhile,incensed at the releasing of elephants into the area and have twice detained Forest officials in their village in the last two weeks. “We told them not to release the elephant here as it has again started wreaking havoc,” said Vilas Gawas,the sarpanch of Mangeli. “Elephants have not only destroyed our crops,but also my son’s future,” said Sangeeta Uparkar,a resident of Otavne village. Wild elephants killed her husband last February,while her son is planning to drop out of college to support his family.

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