Not enough jungle for jumbos?

Jumbo story 5
Wild elephants being led into a Khedda operation during the 1950s at H.D. Kote taluk.

Circa 2016, even as the state’s forests have shrunk, Karnataka is home to the largest elephant population in the country.

By Shravan Regret Iyer

Kakanakote forest, summer of 1873. Hundreds of men surround a herd of wild elephants, beating drums so loudly that the pachyderms panic and begin to run. It’s exactly as British Army officer G.P. Sanderson had planned. He had dug dozens of ditches — khedda — into which the elephants would fall and be confined, until mahouts and domesticated elephants arrived to calm the injured, panicky giants, and eventually tamed them. His catch: 55 jumbos.

The Sanderson method — now called ‘Khedda operation’ — quickly became a spectator sport during the colonial era, with operations being regularly launched to coincide with the visits of British royalty and dignitaries. The British even invited Russian royalty, perhaps to make an impression on their rivals in the Great Game!

Some 37 khedda operations have been carried out since. In the days of the Mysore kingdom, they were meant to provide elephants for use in the Maharaja’s army and in temples. Post Independence, as ‘development’ spread, it was to keep rising elephant numbers in check and reduce human elephant conflicts as the pachyderms became a ‘menace’ to farms.

Jumbo story 2

Watch: Elephants, Men Battle it Out, a short documentary on human-elephant conflict prevalent in the state of Karnataka.

Each time, a few dozen elephants would be captured and tamed. Until exactly a hundred years later, in 1973, the government had to declare elephants an endangered species, ban khedda operations and begin conservation efforts.
Circa 2016, even as the state’s forests have shrunk, Karnataka is home to the largest elephant population in the country — some 6,088 as per a 2012 census.

Inevitably, humans and elephants are coming into conflict even more frequently than in the 19th century. And inevitably, in human-elephant conflict, it’s not the world’s largest land mammal that has the upper hand, but the wily human. The Forest ministry’s solution to the problem of elephants is now not Sanderson-style ‘khedda operations’ — no, those wouldn’t suffice for the scale of the ‘problem’ it is faced with today — but to ‘banish’ hundreds of jumbos to other states.

“Karnataka has been facing the wild elephant menace in Hassan and Madikeri. Due to man-elephant conflicts, many people have been killed. To prevent this, the government is thinking of handing over elephants to other states,” Karnataka Forest minister Ramanath Rai said last week. He even met his Chhattisgarh counterpart Mahesh Gagda to strike an agreement with the latter to send over the jumbos to the heavily forested, but much smaller, central Indian state.

And predictably, wildlife activists are critical of what they say is a solution that has been tried before, but nearly always to disastrous effect. In 2007, for instance, one elephant died soon after being relocated from its home in Odisha’s Lakhari Sanctuary to the forests of Andhra Pradesh. Nearer home, 13 elephants were relocated from Hassan district in the 1980s, but their fate remains unknown even today.

Citing many such instances, the activists argue that the state should learn the lessons of earlier failures: Relocating elephants out of habitats which they are used to and into unfamiliar forests is harmful not only to the animals themselves but to the larger ecosystem as well in both the sending and receiving states.  Says Green Oscar-winning wildlife film maker Krupakar, “The intention behind the proposal may be good, but it is scientifically infeasible.

It will lead to ecological disaster, and the problem they are trying to solve – man-elephant conflict – will only intensify”. Asiatic Elephants are social animals, he explains. Like tigers have their territory, elephants, too, have their own ‘home range’, extending hundreds of square kilometres. Elephants move to different places during different seasons, covering their entire home range in the course of a year. But moving them out of their home range upsets them.

City-based environmentalist Ullash Kumar says, “Relocating Karnataka elephants to Chhattisgarh will not work. There is no comparison between the continuous forest cover in Karnataka and the forests of Chhattisgarh. Also, elephants need plenty of food every day. Where will they get it from in Chhattisgarh?”

A wildlife biologist who did not want to be named revealed that in the past, there have been instances when elephants that were being relocated have died either due to the effects of tranquilisers or during transportation. “Many such incidents have happened in the past, and they will continue to happen if the government goes ahead with such unscientific solutions.”

Wildlife experts suggest, instead, that the government reclaim – even buy out, perhaps — elephant corridors and other forest lands from private owners and encroachers using elephant conservation project funds. They also suggest that the governments of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala work together to ensure seamless elephant corridors between the Western and Eastern Ghats, a move that will involve relocating villages and clearing coffee plantations between patches of forests. Easier said than done, given the commercial interests involved.


This story was originally published in Deccan Chronicle Apr 03, 2016, edition.