Q: We live in a small village, Thekambattu, near Salem in Tamil Nadu. Recently we had elephants near us for the first time in living memory of the oldest inhabitants here. We are glad to see your site because it is perhaps what would have helped us at that time. Anyway, the elephants seem to be wandering; so perhaps this is not the last we see of them. We need to know what can be done here as and when they show up without any resources, trained manpower etc. There has to be something like an Elephant Rescue team on call in the country at different places, I guess…

Asked by Sunder and Sonati, Salem

Answer from Shekar Dattatri, Conservation India:

The problem you describe in your question – and in more much more detail in your blog – is an extremely difficult one to tackle. Although you yourself seem to have analyzed the various dimensions to this dilemma, and may not find this answer very useful, we are posting it here for the benefit of other readers, but with this rider. No one from CI has been to the area or studied the problem. As such, this is therefore not the final word on the subject. Any solutions to complex conservation problems can only be devised, if at all, after detailed field work in the landscape where the problem is prevalent. CI is merely responding to the information contained in the above question. Any experts out there who can provide other answers rooted in reality are cordially invited to send in their views.

From the information in the question, it appears that there are a few elephants roaming through a large landscape with no set pattern; and no one knows where they will appear and when.

So-called “problem elephants” like these are extraordinarily difficult to “drive away” as can be seen from examples in Sri Lanka and India. All the “solutions” that one can glibly offer are exceedingly difficult to implement, particularly in this country, and often, ineffectual in the end. Let’s look at some of them, beginning with the crudest method:

1. Drive them back into the forest with crackers and drums.

In this case, there appears to be no large forest or wildlife sanctuary nearby to drive them back into. Even if there was one, and you did manage to “drive them back” , the same factors that prompted the animals to “stray out” in the first place will still be operational, and the problem will recur again and again.

2. Keep a few ‘Kumkies’ stationed in the area to gently escort the “straying” elephants back to their home.

Tamil Nadu probably has a dozen ‘Kumkies’ and they are housed in secluded elephant camps in the forest (Mudumalai and Anaimalai). When there is a elephant problem in the vicinity of these areas, some ‘Kumkies’ are moved there with great logistical difficulty and used in the driving operation. In your dry region, where and how will ‘Kumkies’ be housed permanently? How will they be moved quickly to where the “problem” elephants are? Once they reach the location, where will they drive the wild herd to?

3. Locate the herd, tranquilize all its members and move them to a distant forest.

How? Looking for a small herd of elephants in a large landscape is like looking for needles in a haystack. Add to that roadless terrain, and you have a extremely difficult task on your hands. Unlike some African countries, our Forest Department does not have helicopters. Even if you did manage to locate the elephants by other means, where are the highly efficient, well-trained and well-equipped professional teams that can undertake a highly complex operation of this sort? Even if the herd can be boxed in somewhere, tranquilization of elephants entails huge risks. A tranquilised mother will, in all probability, fall on top of her calf, killing or maiming it. Tranquilized elephants need to be kept cool by pouring copious quantities of water on their heads because once their ears stop flapping, they overheat dangerously. Even in Africa, where many countries have tried and tested drills to tranquilize and move elephants, mortalities are not uncommon. A bull elephant that was translocated from the Kruger National Park in South Africa to a large and fodder-rich Reserve in Mozambique, subsequently strayed out of its new home and into adjacent human habitation. An expert team tracked it down and tranquilized it successfully. Sadly, while being transported back to the Reserve, the elephant died. When dealing with herds, which have extremely close-knit family ties, if translocation is the only option, the entire herd has to be moved. However, it is being discovered more and more that translocation of wild animals often does not solve the problem but merely moves it to a different location.

4. Educate local people about how to deal with the elephants.

Let’s be practical. Are there any volunteers available for a sustained campaign of this sort over a large landscape? In my personal experience, most “volunteers” seem to prefer comfortable, properly arranged trips to wildlife sanctuaries where they can enjoy nature while occasionally picking up some roadside plastic bags. Anything “boring” or tedious, like filing an RTI application, analyzing a problem, finding solutions, lobbying with officials and elected representatives, or educating the public, has few takers. A mammoth education task – given the size of the landscape you are talking about – will require a mammoth and continuous effort. If, god forbid, any villager gets maimed or killed by an elephant, the wrath of the population will descend on the educators because it will be construed that one of “your elephants” incapacitated or killed one of their people.

5. Any examples of anyone successfully tackling a similar problem?

In Valparai, Tamil Nadu, where tea estates and forest are cheek by jowl, and elephants routinely and regularly come into certain estates through certain routes, Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF) has apparently devised an early warning system using lights and sms alerts. Can such a system be made to work in a vast landscape such as yours? Please write to NCF for answers, and keep us informed so that we can share their reply with others on this forum.

5. What’s the bottom line?

Since you are very concerned with this problem and have thought it through somewhat, our suggestion is that you take it upon yourself to help solve this problem. There is no one else out there to come and do it. No “Flying Squad” that will come to the rescue (unless you have seen Superman in your area lately!). We suggest that you study the situation further and come up with a plan based on “commonsense”. You can then try to recruit some like minded people to help you implement it. Any plan will require a huge amount of lobbying with the Forest Bureaucracy and elected representatives, liaising with village panchayats, and getting advice from elephant biologists.

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