Man-elephant conflict on the rise as habitat shrinks in T.N.

Villagers have started farming on swamplands crucial for the survival of elephants

Late last year, residents of Cherangode and surrounding villages in Pandalur staged a protest calling for the capture of a male elephant known as Shankar that allegedly killed three people in accidental encounters with humans in the region. Now, just five months since the elephant was captured, the swamp or vayal, which was used by Shankar as well as other elephant herds in the region, is under threat as local residents have started cultivating crops in the area.

One of the men who has started a farm in Chappanthode, Aravindan (name changed to protect identity), said that he is growing garlic on 20 cents of land.

“When Shankar was around, it was impossible for us to grow crops as we were scared of venturing into the forests. Now, the other elephant herds keep their distance, and I have begun growing garlic in the revenue land surrounding my property,” said Mr. Aravindan, who runs a guest house in the area and admits he does not have a patta for the land.

“It’s not just me, all people cultivating in this village have encroached upon government land,” he said.

“The problem is that these land classifications – forest land, patta and revenue land – are all just terminologies. These swamplands, or vayals, are crucial for the survival of elephants in the region, as they are a key source of fodder and water for elephants, and as long as these areas remain unprotected, conflict between people and elephants for land and resources is inevitable,” said N. Sadiq Ali, founder, Wildlife and Nature Conservation Trust.

Restoration ecologist Godwin Vasanth Bosco said that the vayals, essentially grassy swamps, host a vast array of native biodiversity, including endangered species of grasses.

“These lands are also very fertile and much coveted by people. Moreover, as most of the lands lie in areas which are not protected by forest laws, these are the first to be destroyed and replaced with farms,” said Mr. Bosco.

With encroachments continuing to mushroom around the vayals, tense interactions between people and humans are inevitable in the long run, say conservationists.

“The habitable areas for elephants in the entire Cherambadi region are the swamps. That elephants are able to survive in such a landscape is perhaps unique. A key factor is that most of this natural cover consists of swamps or wetlands, with perennial water sources and abundant vegetation. They are surrounded by thick stands of trees, with species like Elaeocarpus tuberculatus, Macaranga peltata, Toona ciliata, and species of bamboo (mainly Bambusa arundinaceae). Inside the swamps, there are dense palms (mainly Pandanus fascicularis), a favourite of elephants, and tall grasses, all of which are consumed extensively by elephants,” said Tarsh Thekaekara, founder of The Shola Trust, who has been studying elephants in the region.

In Cherambadi, many of the vayals are inside private and government tea estates.

Srinivas R. Reddy, Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests and Managing Director of the Tamil Nadu Tea Plantation Corporation (TANTEA), said that while it was true that vayals constitute a key part of elephants’ habitat, the entire Gudalur landscape itself is of vayals and hillocks, and each is as important as the other.

“The elephants spend their days inside the vayals and forage in the forests at night,” said Mr. Reddy.

“There are multiple elephant pathways that pass through the landscape, and some of these pathways pass through the TANTEA estates,” said Mr. Reddy.

He added that the onus was on the Forest Department to identify important elephant corridors.

“We have expressed our willingness to forego these lands when these pathways are identified. TANTEA has already handed over 276 hectares of land back to the Forest Department in Cherambadi, Cherangode and Pandiar estates to mitigate conflict in these areas,” added Mr. Reddy.

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