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As human settlements in the Nilgiris have expanded over the years into wild habitats, leaving animals with no place to go, the incidence of human-animal conflicts in the region has increased. In the past five years, more than 40 people were killed in animal attacks in the Nilgiris district, forest department figures show.

All the spaces that people occupy in the day time are being overrun by animals at night in the jungle zones of Gudalur and Pandalur taluks, forcing human movement to a grinding halt by nightfall. Wild animals then take over the roads, grounds, plantations and farmlands.

Elephant herds regularly move along all the prominent roads in the area passing through thickly populated human habitats, such as Gudalur-Wayanad, Gudalur-Thaloor-Sulthan Bathery and Gudalur-Nadukani-Vazhikadavu, all inter-state highways. Bikers avoid these roads after nightfall, while cars and jeeps do make the risky trip, all the while praying for safe passage, regular travellers on the route say.

More than 40 persons were killed in elephant attacks in the Gudalur and Pandalur taluks in the past 12 years since 2010, whereas that figure was only 32 by comparison in the 35 years between 1971 and 2005

In the past, humans and animals in the area lived in relative harmony, except for the rare incursions of wild boar and monkeys into human habitats. With plenty of food in the jungle, elephants never bothered human beings. But for the past few years, human-animal conflict has been on the rise. Forest department figures say more than 40 persons were killed in elephant attacks in the Gudalur and Pandalur taluks in the past 12 years since 2010, whereas in the 35 years between 1971 and 2005, the number of human beings killed by elephants in Gudalur Forest Division was only 32 by comparison.

Death, destruction and inadequate compensation
Among the victims only 14 were paid a compensation of Rs 1,99,900. According to K Ramachandran, Tamil Nadu Minister for Forests, in total 337 persons were killed in the last five years. Due to a cash crunch, as many as 2,901 applications for compensation remain pending with the government for the last three years. Recently the state government sanctioned an amount of Rs 6.42 Crore for compensation to the kith and kin of victims killed in wildlife attacks, as well as those injured and for farmers who lost crops in animal raids.

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As for animal deaths, in the 1993-2006 period, human interventions such as poisoning or electrocution killed as many as 34 elephants in the Gudalur Forest Division. Of four tiger deaths and eight leopard deaths reported in Gudalur Forest Division, two and five respectively were from Gudalur Forest Range. Incidents of crop raiding by animals have also been on the rise during the years. Between 1993 and 2006, as many as 2,141 incidents of crop damage were reported. Gudalur forest range topped the chart with 1,065 cases.

Eventually, as the forest department repeatedly refused to pay compensation for crop loss in the last three years, farmers stopped reporting the incidents, and have become resigned to considering the loss their “fate”. Even in incidents of human deaths caused by elephants, compensation would be disbursed only if the kith and kin of the deceased raised a hue and cry, they said.

Nevertheless, the state government in a recent order revised the compensation for human killing by wildlife to Rs 5 lakh from Rs 3 lakh, of which 25 percent is to be given within 24 hours of the incident. The compensation had earlier been revised in 2011 to Rs 3 lakh from Rs 1.5 lakh.

For major injuries, however, the compensation is merely Rs 30,000. Similarly, for crop loss the maximum amount paid to the farmer is Rs 25,000 per acre land, which is meagre considering the usual magnitude of loss. A coconut farmer would only get Rs 500 as compensation, which is wholly inadequate considering the value of crop loss. For damage to a house, the maximum compensation given is Rs 8,000, which is nothing considering the cost of construction material and labour.

For milch animals, the compensation is only Rs 10,000 whereas the market price of an animal is more than Rs 40,000, farmers pointed out. The compensation should also cover the loss of earnings to the farming family, as the farmer would struggle till he/she gets the right substitute for the killed animal.

As many as 2,901 applications for compensation remain pending with the government for the last three years

Farmers’ organisations are also demanding that the compensation for death of humans be increased to Rs 10 lakh, as that is the amount that forest department personnel who lose their life in wildlife attacks receive as compensation. It is discriminatory to give a farmer who leads an uncertain life merely Rs 5 lakh while a forest official who receives good salary and other benefits gets double the amount as compensation. Meanwhile, organisations of forest department employees have already demanded increasing their compensation amount to Rs 50 lakh.

O’Valley of death by night
A classic example of the plight of people living in jungle zones of Nilgiris is the case of O’Valley, a panchayath with barely 25,000 people surrounded by forest near Gudalur. In the past six months from May, five people were killed by elephants in the hamlets of O’Valley panchayat of which three were women and two men. One woman was killed while she was returning from her day’s work at a nearby estate in the evening while another was killed when she went out during night to answer the call of nature. In May this year, two persons were killed on consecutive days. People are scared to enter the roads once it is nightfall in the village. A pall of fear descends on the village when it is evening. “For whom the bell tolls” is the question that rings in the village after nightfall.

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Earlier, forest department personnel regularly monitored the movement of certain elephants notorious for their hostility towards humans, and also ensured that these animals would not enter human habitats. But in recent times, with the district witnessing a spurt of elephant attacks on humans, the short-staffed forest department does not have the means to deploy sufficient numbers of personnel as they did in the past.

The animals that camp in plantations outside the villages during the day time enter the villages by sunset, taking life off those who come across their path. The most vulnerable are the tea leaf-pluckers of the plantations, a majority of whom are women.

Dip in quality of the ecosystem
Forest officials say that the population of elephants is increasing in Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary, which is also affecting the fragile ecosystem. A survey conducted in the year 2000 found that the sanctuary had as many as 530-1000 elephants spread over 25 herds. In a 1987 survey, the number of elephants was only 350. Later the numbers increased to 760-1300 animals. The increasing density of elephant population, coupled with dipping quality of the jungle due to the omnipresence of invasive species including the Eucalyptus and Teak plantations that are hostile to the environment, are doing much damage to the native ecology.

Experts pointed out that both Eucalyptus and Teak monopolise the soil thus preventing the growth of other plants. Researchers have already established that the silica content is high in the leaves of teak which would reduce the water retention capacity of soil, gradually reducing its fertility. Moreover, the forest department itself accepts that among the 760-odd Asiatic elephants counted in the Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary, 40 have crossed over to jungle zones near human habitats.

Animal behavioural experts pointed out that these animals, including elephants and big cats, have crossed over to human habitats as they have failed to fit in with the habitat. Being in conflict with the jungle and alienated from the herd, they traverse a lonely journey to unknown pastures making them more prone to clashes with the farming community.

Earlier, forest department personnel regularly monitored the movement of certain elephants notorious for their hostility towards humans, and also ensured that these animals would not enter human habitats. But now they’re short-staffed

The farmers and plantation owners have demanded the rehabilitation of such problem animals, limiting their movement within an exclusive jungle enclave inside the forest. Instead of chasing them away into another part of the jungle from the problem zone, they should be given exclusive care within the enclave, thus saving both the animal as well as the human beings, they said.

Along with this, the fragmentation of forest abetted by plantation groups and government initiated projects like TANTEA, which has devoured more than 16,000 acres of forest land for rehabilitation of the Sri Lankan Tamil population, has also caused irreparable damage to the ecology. Though the state government has begun a nature restoration initiative, returning 5,000 acres of land to the forest department for conversion into forest, environmental activists are not sure how long it will take for nature to heal its wounds.

With the state and central government allocating huge funds in the name of nature conservation, it is unjustifiable to pass the burden of fending off the wildlife threat to the hapless farming community. Governments must come up with sensitive and ecologically-friendly solutions that put an end to human-animal conflict and maintain harmony.

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