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Jan 23, 2009

Frequent Elephant Raids Upset Farmers

"The elephant is government property, so confine it to the forests and keep it out of my home," says 69-year-old Ramaswamy, a farmer from Varapalayam. The farmers with him from Varapalayam, Ramnathapuram and adjoining areas in the Periyanaickenpalayam range nod in agreement. Angered by frequent crop raids, farmers in Coimbatore Forest Division (CFD) are not just demanding better compensation; they are questioning the protection the Asian elephant receives under Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act.

If an elephant kills a man, you get one lakh, but if a man kills an elephant after it damages his crops, he spends years in jail, and it is a non-bailable offence," says Ramaswamy. Animals listed in Schedule I are the most endangered and get absolute protection, and the highest penalties are awarded for offences. In the last couple of years, about 60 villages in CFD have been experiencing a high level of human-elephant conflict as they are located on the traditional migratory path used by elephants.


"Elephants migrate along the foothills or plains, that is, the fringe areas," says wildlife biologist Senthil Murugan, who works with Coimbatore Forest Department. Cropping patterns have also changed over the last 20 years, says K Kalidas, president, OSAI, an environmental organisation. "Earlier, people grew crops like chilli that don't attract elephants," he says. With labour becoming scarce, farmers have switched to less-labour intensive crops like banana, sugarcane and maize. "I have suffered a loss of Rs 60,000 this year," says Maragatham Rajagopal, who has a 10-acre banana and coconut farm in Thaliyoor, Periyathadagam.


Elephants have entered her farm more than 20 times in the last two years. Farmers use crackers and high-powered lights to frighten elephants away, but these don't always deter the animals. Though the forest department has put up solar fences, they are of no use. "The elephants use their tusks or feet, which are non-conducting, to push down the fences," says Marudappan, a farmer. The farmers are also unhappy with the compensation mechanism. "We contact the village administrative office and block development officer.


They estimate the crop loss, but it takes months before we get money. And we get only Rs 15,000 no matter how much our losses are," says Vazhukuparai Balu, district president of the Tamizhaga Vyavasayi Sangham, Coimbatore. Government officials maintain that they are trying to address the issues. "In the last two years, the state government has sanctioned Rs 50 lakh per year for compensation and the state government Rs 36 lakh under Project Elephant," says I Anwardeen, district forest officer. Efforts are being taken to enhance the compensation packages, says district collector V Palanikumar.


"About four months ago, the district administration sent a proposal to the state government to incur the expenditure of actual crop loss, provided it is certified by the agriculture department. It is under consideration," he says. Experts are worried that the rising anti-elephant sentiment will impact conservation adversely. CFD plays a vital role in ensuring a healthy elephant population as it connects the Eastern and Western Ghats. "It is essential to make farmers understand that the forests have been home to the elephant for hundreds of years and we are the ones disturbing their habitat," says Kalidas.



"Since the mindset of the people of each settlement is different, we need to work with each one." Conservationists are also worried about the impact habitual crop raiding can have on the elephants, as it exposes them to high levels of pesticide and insecticide. "Agronomists and agricultural economists need to work with conservationists to see how to transform cultivation in these areas," says Dr Raman Sukumar, one of the world's leading authorities on Asian elephants. It's not just elephants that are the bane of farmers. Wild boars and peacocks have also been raiding fields, causing widespread damage.


"The birds come in the morning and the animals at night," says Marudappan. In this case, the farmers are not just pressing removal of legal protection. "We want permission to kill them," says Balu. "We are trying to encourage farmers to revert to traditional agricultural practices, like planting sormul, a thorny plant, on field boundaries," says district collector Palanikumar. "We can post more personnel in conflict-prone areas but we cannot allow people to take the law into their own hands."

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