The Tale Of Two Species By Sukshma Ramakrishnan

That October night, last year, farmer Sivasankara had kept watch on his fields as usual, fully-equipped with fire crackers and a fire burning nearby. But, when a herd of hungry elephants looking for food came across his crops, his torches and firecrackers could do little to deter them. He had no choice but to flee to the safety of his home.

The following morning, he woke up to find his ragi and banana fields of three acres completely destroyed by the animals, leaving him with an estimated loss of Rs 50,000 in just one night.

“What can we do when those beasts come? Nothing we do can stop them. By the time the forest officers respond, it is always too late,” says Sivasankara, in frustration.

He is not the only one whose life is a constant struggle with wild elephants. All farmers with fields close to the Nagarahole forest region in Mysore district have their livelihoods continually threatened by elephants.

The iron fences and trenches put up by the forest department are often not enough to confine the elephants to the forest.

Watch towers, small fires and iron fences can do little to prevent invading elephants.
“The elephants come out of the forest only when they are very hungry or thirsty. At that time, fences, even if they are made of iron can be broken by them. The elephants even fill up the trenches with sand and stones to get across them,” says Arumugam, a Panchayat official from Hanugodu.

The prevailing drought in the state since last year has left trees leafless and ponds dried up, leaving the elephants with little food and water. Lack of enough fodder in the forest forces the elephants to venture out of their territory into crop fields and man-made ponds.

Official data from the Nagarahole Tiger Reserve shows that Nagarhole has 8000 hectares of forest land and nearly 3000 hectares of cultivable land.

According to Dr. Surendra Varma, an expert on elephant studies from Mysore, the elephants may be developing ‘specific tastes’ towards cultivated crops even if they are available in small quantities.

“If the animal develops the specific taste, it could put all its effort to explore cultivated crops, resulting in conflict with humans,” he says.

Competition between humans and elephants for the same resources in the region has resulted in deaths on both sides. Farmers, while trying to flee, have often been trampled by invading elephants. Although forest rangers and farmers try to drive the elephants away without harming them, there have been several elephant deaths due to electrocution by electric fences that are set up for protecting fields.

“We patrol areas in and around Nagarahole, day and night. But, the problem is, we don’t have sufficient personnel to cover each and every area. So, it takes us time to respond to a sudden attack in a distant area,” says Shapir, a forest officer from the Nagarahole Tiger Reserve.

With little protection from wild animals, farmers in the area are forced to live in perpetual uncertainty.

“The only thing we can rely on sometimes is prayer. Perhaps, luck too. At least if we get compensation, we would have some kind of relief but we rarely do,” says Prasanna, a farmer who cultivates ragi, maize, coffee and banana.

Many farmers claim that forest officials come to estimate the destruction of their crops and promise to provide compensation but rarely keep their promise.

“For the loss of crop of three acres, which would be worth Rs 2 lakhs, we were given a compensation of only Rs 3000 last year,” says Yashodamma, Prasanna’s wife, showing a copy of the cheque given to them by the government.

No clear solution is in sight that would provide relief for farmers and protect elephants. However, if the government takes effective steps to restore the forest habitat and encourage farmers to cultivate food crops that do not attract elephants in the region, things could improve, according to Dr. Varma.

“If no specific measure defining what crop to cultivate and what not to cultivate is taken, then the conflict would continue in most of the habitats which elephants and humans share,” he says.

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