An Elephantine Matter

“Hearing a cracking sound of a tree branch I looked aside, there was a big elephant about twenty meters away from me, breaking a twig from a tree and eating it. Holding my breath I stood there for a while, I didn’t know whether to go back, it was getting darker. If I went back, there was no way that I could get home before dark, but the elephant was standing close to the road that I had to pass by. Fortunately some of the neighbours who were grazing their cows in the field saw me standing alone and they came and shooed away the elephant”

 said Kamala chechi from the back seat.

Kamala chechi is an ASHA Worker and an ebullient tribal woman from Wayanad district and she was telling us how she escaped from an elephant while returning from her field visit. Elephant attacks had become more frequent in her village in the past  few years. My colleague and I were on a field visit to the Wayanad tribal community as part of our study and we decided to visit a forest dwelling tribal community living near a wildlife sanctuary in Wayanad. We could see a vast stretch of tropical deciduous forest blanketed with beautiful meadows with tall teak trees everywhere. It was about 9 AM and  the road was completely deserted with no human presence.

Children from the colony go to school along this route usually at this time. Since no one is seen today I suspect that elephants may be around and we should move carefully

said Kamala chechi. Fear gripped us as we drove further into the forest through the bumpy, muddy road. Moving up and down through a winding road, finally we reached the colony.

The colony is inhabited by Paniya and Wayanadan Chetti households. Most of the land is owned by the Chetti households and most of the Paniya households have less than 5 cents of land. In the middle there is a long patch of land owned by the Wayanadan Chettis. “

There were rice, tapioca, and vegetables cultivated. Now as the wild animal enters the field and destroys all the crops, they stopped cultivation and the land is left almost barren

Said Kamala chechi. I could see the wavy and undulating stretch of landscape lying almost empty. Here and there cows and goats were grazing in the field. As we reached the colony, we saw some of the children walking towards a jamun tree at the corner of the long stretch of land and climbing on it. There were five children in the group. We also followed them, by the time we reached some of them had already up on the tree and the younger once were standing down and plucking Jamun from the tree.

We started talking to one of the boys. Baiju is 11 years old and he studies in 5th standard. He didn’t go to school these days as there were elephants crossing the route he took  to school. These days, the threat from elephants was increasing and Baiju told us that many days the children from the colony couldn’t go to school as the elephants are passing on the way. Elephant attack was so severe in the place that the people in the community were also not able to go for daily labour. The children could not go to school unless accompanied by adults.

From our further interaction with the community it was understood that agriculture cultivation has become almost impossible to the community now. Kumaran Chetti (48 year old man from Chetti community) said:

I used to cultivate paddy and banana, but I stopped since two years due to the disturbance from monkeys, deers, wild pigs, peacock, and elephants. Now all the wild animals are here in our village, they don’t have anything to eat in the forest now, so they encroach into our land. If we cultivate paddy deer herds may enter the field and eat up everything within a night’s time. One herd may consist of fifty to hundred deers”.

As the Chetti families stopped cultivation, the labour opportunities of the Paniya households were also lost. They were once dependent on the Chetti communities for their livelihood. Going out of the forest is also fraught with fear. At any time they may be confronted with wild elephants or other wild animals. It affects the livelihood, children’s education, seeking health care and other welfare services. Kumaran Chetti said

I was born in this land and we lived like kings, we had plenty rice field, coffee, pepper and all other crops but now we are in a pathetic situation. The Paniyas get at least free ration from PDS, but we don’t get even that…Now officers are promising ten lacks rupees for our rehabilitation outside, with ten lacks what can be done sir, this is our land, we paid the tax for this land since many years, now both animals and government are against us”. Kumaran Chetti was so helpless and troubled in his condition.

Their concerns are real. This is not just the case of this colony alone, this is the problem faced by most of the communities living near the forest areas in Wayanad district. In addition to the property and livelihood loss, there are many cases of physical injuries and loss of life in many places. But, can we blame these animals? The animals don’t understand that these people are paying taxes for the land and they have the patta and they invest their money and labour for cultivation and this is their sole property. They just follow their biological instinct, when the food is not available in their natural habitat they go to the place where it is available and when they are prevented from it they turn violent. The government has spent lot of money for preventing the wild animals from entering agriculture field. They have dug trenches, made solar power fencing and rail fencing and so on. But all these have proven to be futile, and the reports of crop damage by wild animals are increasing day by day. Elephants pull big tree trunk onto the fencings and break it and get into the field. What is the viable solution for this problem? Can we prevent animals entering our field just by making fencing and trenches? When there is no sufficient food in the forest what do these animals do? Don’t they too have the right to life and food?

I think the government’s attempt to prevent these animals is just a band aid solution to a deeper malady. The problem lies in the much wider and deeper ecological context. It is related to the changes that happened to the forest ecology and the climate in the Wayanad. From the colonial period onwards, the British government introduced the teak plantation in the forest areas and after independence Kerala government followed the same policy and also introduced other non-indigenous specious like acacia and eucalyptus for commercial purposes. This has led to the destruction of the forest ecology in the area on a large scale. The forest that was once dark rain forest has now turned into deciduous forest. Planting of trees with commercial value has destroyed the local bio-diversity and according to environmental activists, the introduction of the non-indigenous plants had low biological value. These governmental interventions in the forest changed the forest ecology that has triggered food shortage for the animals in the forest. Furthermore, decreasing forest cover and increasing animal density, rising temperature and droughts in the recent years has caused the depletion of water bodies and plants in the forest, which forced the wild animals to come out of the forest in search of food. Hence, the sustainable solution to the problem of human animal conflict in Wayanad is to start re-wildening the forest with native varieties of plants in a more systematic manner in order for the animals to have their natural habitat. The right of both human and animals need to be respected and preserved.

(Names of persons given are not original)