The district of Hassan which has a combination of both dry plains and the typical Western Ghat forest areas has two distinct populations of elephants. A small population of about 25 elephants are found in the reserved forests of Kattepura and Doddabetta on the backwaters of the Hemavathi reservoir. The other larger population is found in Bisle, Kagneri, Kanchankumari, Kemphole, Bhagimalai and other reserved forests abutting the Pushpagiri Wildlife Sanctuary.
The elephants found in the Kattepura and Doddabetta are locked in tiny islands of forests that have no forest connectivity to any other larger elephant habitats to allow dispersal across the larger landscape. This population is in the midst of human settlements and has little source of natural forage. Hence the elephants are forced to source their required nutrients and food from surrounding crop fields. These pachyderms literally spend their lives in coffee plantations, paddy fields and villages leading to severe conflict.
This conflict has immensely cost both humans and elephants. In the last ten years 28 people have lost their lives in accidents with elephants in the district. It has cost the Government nearly 3.5 crores as compensation paid for crop damages and loss of human life. In response, too often the solution to the problem has come from electricity tapped into farm fences. Four elephants have been electrocuted in the last one year alone. Farmers in the district have resorted to all forms of opposition to express their angst from softer to more bred-in-the-bone approaches. Representations, protests, highway blockades, locking up forest officials, they have tried it all. Obviously a permanent solution needs to be found.
What choices exist when an endangered wildlife species genuinely causes serious damages to human life and livelihoods and has little long-term future in the area? The world over wherever such situations have existed, managers follow either lethal or non-lethal approaches to mitigate conflicts. However the solution needs to be socially, culturally and ecologically acceptable.
The two possible options contemplated by the Government at Hassan include translocation of these herds to a larger elephant habitat or capturing these animals to be permanently put in elephant camps. A report prepared by M.K.Appaiah, a retired forest official, and elephant biologist Ajai Desai have suggested translocation of these elephant herds to far off elephant habitats. If the translocation course is taken, then the elephants will be captured in herds rather than individuals as elephants form tight family groups. There are fewer chances of the animals moving back to their original home ranges if translocated to distant forest areas.
Such kinds of experiments are regularly carried out in some African countries. This month in a massive exercise Kenyan authorities have shifted 60 elephants from Narok North district into Maasai Mara National Reserve to reduce conflicts. They intend to shift another 140 if the current operation succeeds.
In South Africa, elephant translocation efforts have has mixed results. In some instances elephants have returned to their former home ranges and there are instances where they have successfully settled in their new homes. However this is a new experiment for Karnataka and should be seen with caution and patience.
If science fails
Wildlife ecology is projected as one of the tools to solve conservation problems. Ecologists, time and again, blame managers for not following conservation principles based on science. However on subjects like these, science has found little time or interest to have examined the problem and find solutions based on which managers could have adopted decisions. If science continues to fail to provide timely, pragmatic results that are meaningful to wildlife management, it will not be surprising if managers prevail to show apathy towards wildlife research.
In Karnataka, elephants now survive in good numbers only in the southern Western Ghats with massive contraction of their historical distribution ranges. They have lost ground in the northern parts of the Ghats with a handful surviving in Dandeli Tiger Reserve. In the central Western Ghats, only Bhadra Tiger Reserve has a decent population. However it is disjointed from the bigger population that survives in Nagarahole, Bandipur, B.R.Hills and M.M.Hills. The population of elephants in Cauvery wildlife sanctuary and Bannerghatta National Park hangs under severe stress. Though there are smaller links for these small populations to larger elephant grounds through forest in Tamilnadu, their future depends on the decisions that would be taken across the border.
The elephant habitats in the Hassan district have been greatly modified. The recent threat comes in the form of ‘green energy’ projects where 44 run-of-the-river mini-hydel projects are permitted across the River Nethravathi most of them falling within the current domain of jumbos.
Moving away from the parochial approach, we need to make out that destruction, fragmentation and degradation of wildlife habitats, which has left a huge footprint on the elephants of Hassan, can cause similar effects on other habitat specialist wildlife species in the future. ‘Destruction’ has always happened in the history but the destroyer and the opportunities were fewer. A sub-population of the Hassan elephants will go locally extinct during our lifetimes, but hopefully this morbid event would not be repeated to the other surviving elephant sub-population in the district.
An edited version of this article was published in Deccan Herald on 18-10-2011