Updated: March 7, 2021 6:30:56 pm
High up on the Nilgiris, tea estate workers live in row houses, the single lines of their dwellings sandwiched between the plantation and the forest. Many of them are repatriates, who left Sri Lanka in the 1960s. For neighbours, they have tribal communities and wildlife. For decades, they had all shared a home on the hills. But over the past few years, man and animal are coming into increasing contact –– and conflict –– with both sides suffering immense losses.
Both tea estate workers and tribals say government intervention has caused more harm than help, with seemingly arbitrary rules born out of “poor knowledge” of how people had co-existed with animals over the years.
According to a reply in Parliament by Babul Supriyo, MoS Environment, Forest, and Climate Change, in the past five years (2015-2020), 246 people were killed in Tamil Nadu in elephant attacks. According to the Tamil Nadu forest department –– as stated in a response to RTI activist Antony Rubin in January –– in the last six years, around 561 elephants died in Tamil Nadu, due to natural causes as well as conflict with humans.
The Indian Express visited several places in Gudular and Pandalur, where human-animal conflicts are common, and found that both man and beast live in the shadow of death.
‘Ban on livestock grazing in forests caused most trouble’
“If you ask me about the forest department’s actual understanding of wildlife, I would have to say they have very little,” said a veterinary doctor, who once treated wild animals on a demand basis for the Tamil Nadu government. “One official had asked me to write in an elephant’s autopsy report that it was a cow, by removing its tusks. Till a few years ago, when rules weren’t very strict, officials would be involved in poaching,” said the doctor, on condition of anonymity.
One of the areas the doctor worked in was Gudalur, where in December last year, a wild tusker named Shankar killed a father and son in the Cherambadi Tamil Nadu Tea Plantation Corporation Limited (TANTEA) estate. Around the same time, another tribal woman was killed.
“Earlier, this area had thousands of livestock. Giving them injections would take a few days. The herders would not mind if one or two cows were killed by carnivores. Problems began when grazing inside the forest was made illegal in 2002. While on one hand, livestock died, on the other, the shrubs they would graze on started taking over the forest. These invasive shrubs edged out the grass and plants that were traditional food for elephants. These elephants then started venturing out of the forest to search for food,” the doctor said.
‘Fencing, patrolling inefficient’
According to the doctor, the methods the forest department came up with to keep elephants away from human settlements were hardly foolproof.
“Once, this same department encouraged locals to set up electric fences around their crops. Now, they are insisting on solar fencing. But if a pachyderm repeatedly touches the same wire or coil, the current can kill it. Also, elephants are very intelligent. They often figure out how to disturb the electricity connection, so they can safely cross into fields. It was due to the failures of electric fencing that farmers turned to avuttukkai (country bomb). They simply cut an edible fruit and put the bomb inside. It may sound cruel to you, but the locals are only trying to protect their life and livelihood.”
Marudhai (48), a tea estate worker, said while the forest department does alert them when it spots elephant activity near their settlements, it does little more to help.
“Sometimes, we receive messages from the department on elephant activities in our areas. But the officials simply chase the elephant from one tea estate to another. They employ two guards with firecrackers after an attack takes place. They monitor the elephant’s movement for a while. If another incident takes place in surrounding estates, these guards go there. Contacting and getting them back when we receive a special four-legged guest at our estate is hard. They don’t always respond, or say they are caught up at another estate,” said. Marudhai.
Marudhai had narrowly escaped death last December, when an elephant killed his colleague Anandaraj (49) and the latter’s son Prasath (29) in Cherambadi tea estate, Kolappalli.
“Anandraj and I were returning to our line houses after attending a function in neigbouring 11th line (row house) of TANTEA estate. We didn’t know Anandraj’s son had been attacked by an elephant moments ago. My phone fell down, and while I stopped to retrieve it, Anandraj walked ahead. As he turned a corner, the elephant, who had been hiding in the bushes, charged at him. For a second, my mind went blank. I then ran to the 11th line, raising an alarm and asking people to stay inside the houses. Anandraj and his son could not be saved,” he said.
Like Marudhai, thousands of people in Gudalur live under constant threat of elephant attacks. After the two deaths, the District administration asked the residents of the 10th line to relocate to the 11th line. It also asked people to stay indoors from 6 pm to 6 am.
For those who came from Sri Lanka, this has meant losing their homes once again.
“Is this the right way to reduce conflicts?” said Rajeshwari, a repatriate tea estate worker. “The administration wants us to relocate from the 10th line to the 11th line. What will they do if the 11th line also sees a tusker attack? As repatriates, a house of our own is everyone’s dream here. We worked very hard in these high altitudes to build our lives. I built my house with 40 years of savings, because I didn’t want my children to know the homeless and rootlessness I had seen. But now, I can’t live in that house. Bushes are running wild over it, and I can’t go back to it. It is very painful,” said Rajeshwari.
There are about 5 lakh people like Rajeshwari here, workers of Sri Lanka’s lush tea plantations, who came to India after the Sirima Shastri pact of 1964 and found work in the TANTEA estates. “When we arrived, there was no elephant movement here. The Tamil Nadu government gave us work in areas where the elephant threat was nil,” she claimed.
The night curfew order brings other difficulties.
“We don’t have attached toilets in the row houses. We have to use public toilets that are 300 meters away. Think about girls and women. What are they supposed to do at night?” Rajeshwari added.
The night curfew is not the only unpopular order. “The administration advised us not to cook at night. Isn’t it ridiculous? Can you imagine people eating dinner cooked in the morning at this high altitude, in this harsh weather?” said Selvaraj, co-ordinator of VTMS, an organisation that works for repatriates and other marginalised communities in Gudalur Taluk. “Also, recently, the High Court said we or the forest department should not use firecrackers to scare elephants away. What should the public do if they suddenly find an elephant close by?” he added.
‘Compensation inadequate, ignores local realities’
Another grievance the locals have is that compensation granted if someone is killed by an elephant is insufficient.
Vellimalar, a resident from Nadugani, lost her husband Jeeva to a tusker attack in 2012. “He left me a widowed mother of a 5-year-old son. The government gave us Rs 2.5 lakh as compensation, which was not enough. I now run a tailor. Government officials didn’t inform us of any pension or job I was entitled to,” Vellimalar said.
In 2012, tea estate worker Sarasu (59) was tossed away by an elephant at her home. Her spinal cord was broken, and since then, she has been bed-ridden. Her husband Sisu Balan (61) alleges he has been taking care of Sarasu with little support from the government or TANTEA. “Long back, the forest department gave Rs 30,000 as compensation. The Collectorate provides us Rs 1,000 pension and free ration. But I have no means to give Sarasu the medical attention she needs. I can’t even arrange a wheelchair to take her out for a while,” Sisu Balan said.
If an elephant destroys a field or kills someone in a village, compensation is provided. But residents say the compensation rules ignore how dependent the local communities are on forests.
“If an elephant kills a man on agricultural land, the government gives compensation. But if a herder is killed inside the forest, where he went to graze his livestock, his kin won’t get compensation. The Forest department asks us to stay away from the forest. But our livelihood depends on the forest. Forest produce like Nellikkai (Indian gooseberry) and kadukkai (Haritaki) are our source of income,” said Hasanur Gram Panchayat councilor Arulsamy.
A farmer from Kolappalli, who did not give his name, added, “The government gives compensation for paddy and plantain crop raids only. I’ve grown jackfruit, areca nut, ginger, and all other mountain crops. But nothing gets compensation after an elephant raid.”
‘Elephant corridors disrupted migration routes’
A member of the local Paniya tribe, 68-year-old Kariyan, said his family had lived in the area for generations, but “our forefathers and elders” never had any trouble with elephants. “Now, we have to be in our houses before dusk. It is this elephant corridor business that is causing trouble. If only a few corridors are earmarked for elephants to move in, they will naturally come into conflict with humans along that corridor.”
The Kolappalli farmer said cordoning off some areas as elephant corridors disrupted the traditional migration routes of elephants. “We moved to Kolappalli from Kozhikode long ago. In 1962, when an elephant was seen walking inside the Kolappalli area, that made headlines. But in the late 70s, things changed. The free moment of elephants was blocked everywhere and herds fragmented.”
When The Indian Express asked about the traditional methods to reduce human-animal conflicts, Irula tribe member Veerappan from Thengumarahada said, “Traditionally we inherited only one thought –– coexistence. Periyasamy (a sacred way to denote the elephant) enters the field only if he is very hungry. We would let him eat, not chase him away. If he entered the village, we would blow our traditional musical instruments. Or, we cut a tree and smoked it the next day, which would help direct the elephant’s journey. People who live on river banks have a unique Oodhanguzhal (iron pipes used to keep the fire in ember). When they hear the moments of elephants, they blow it.”
Veerappan, however, is quick to add, “I am not saying the traditional methods are failsafe. Now, we lose people to attacks every few months.”
‘Locals exaggerate claims of damages, we have taken several steps”
The forest department, however, says claims of people dying every few months are exaggerated, and that the government moves quickly in case of attacks.
“The locals’ claims about death toll are not true. A few years ago, the death toll had mounted to 15 per year. But the toll has been brought down. Recently, locals panicked when a single tusker killed three people back-to-back. The forest department efficiently controls such incidents. We have deployed customised jeeps to announce the whereabouts of elephants. We give details of their movement to locals through SMS as soon as possible. Around 100 forest employees are working in the Gudalur area just to mitigate human-animal interactions,” said Ganeshan, a forest ranger in Cherambadi division.
The forest department also digs trenches around villages to prevent elephants from entering them, but Ganeshan said all paths can’t be blocked for elephants.
“The forest department dug trenches of about 50 km in our division. But these trenches can’t be dug in swamplands. Elephants use these marshes to walk across. With increasing human activity, forest patches are becoming smaller. The pressure on elephants’ free movement is tremendous. Elephants don’t deliberately come to residential areas; they simply have no other way to go. But we are working on new ideas to mitigate conflict,” Ganeshan said.
Forest cover in the Gudalur landscape reduced from a total of 432 square kilometres in 1977 to 370 square kilometres by 2016, according to a recent study by a PhD scholar from Government Arts and Science College, Ooty.
A story of hope
A positive example in reducing man-animal conflict is Valparai in the Western Ghats. Here, locals are working with researchers and the forest department to share data on elephants’ whereabouts and movement pattern, to develop sustainable solutions.
Ganesh Ragunanthan, an elephant biologist, told The Indian Express, “Conflicts or human-animal interactions differ from landscapes to landscapes and season to season. Elephants cover 200 to 300 square kilometers of landscape in a year. So we cannot expect them to stay inside the forest.”
Ganesh works for NGO and research organisation Nature Conservation Foundation, which coordinates with the forest department to reduce man-animal conflict. He said often, people are harmed because they don’t know how to react when they see a tusker.
“The blind curves of roads, isolated housing units, poorly lit paths, toilets unattached to houses are some of the reasons people are killed in elephant attacks. Tea estate houses share a single roof with any number of wall blocks. If an elephant tries to get some food in the kitchen by breaking the wall, people panic and run out. But if the elephant’s herd is waiting outside, the situation becomes very dangerous,” Ganesh said.
On the steps that led to success in the Valparai area, Ganesh said, “Since 2007, we have been studying elephants’ behaviour patterns according to seasons. Parallely, we have been talking with local communities, teaching them how to react when they happen to see an elephant.”
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