Come October, forest department officials in the Coimbatore region gear up for their annual challenge as the wild elephants begin their annual trip along the woods.
The migration season for elephant herds in the Nilgiris Biosphere begins during this part of the year as the wild jumbos meander along the borders of textile town raiding farms and villages as they make their trip across the Western Ghats.
Following the massive intrusions made by herds of elephants in Thadagam, Thudiyalur and surrounding areas over the past few years, forest department had focused its efforts in that region during the past season and have been reasonably successful with their efforts.
“The Elephant Proof Trenches (EPT) and other precautionary measures to avoid the entry of jumbos into villages such as solar fencing and providing drinking water facility forest areas have drastically reduced the animal movement in those areas,” says District Forest Officer (Coimbatore) V. Thirunavukkarasu. “But, the problems have commenced this year on the western side as a few herds have been wreaking havoc in Ettimadai, Madukarai and other areas on the Palakkad Road,” he said.
The forest department has always been and continues to be short-staffed with most rangers, forest guards and watchers working long hours to monitor the movement of jumbos. Last year, the forest department had attempted a system of roping in local villagers to monitor the movement of elephants under the ‘Friends of Forest Department’ scheme similar to the Friends of Police.
“But, that did not take off quite successfully,” senior forest officials said. “We do have the budget and even identified resources for roping in as part of our patrol team. But the villagers were not as effective in monitoring elephants when left on their own, hence we had to give up that effort,” the official said.
Despite constant monitoring and other efforts taken by forest department, people still continue to get killed in elephant attacks although the numbers have reduced this year with the most recent one recorded in Madukarai area close to the city when an elderly man was mauled by a wild elephant late at night.
“It is a constant process and we are now digging EPTs in other areas after providing certain gaps for the animals to pass through,” DFO Thirunavukkarasu said.
Over the years some lone tuskers have got used to their surroundings and have become resident. “They are our biggest concern as we have to watch them through the year,” says Thirunavukkarasu.
Bears are not much of a threat
Even as the forest department has been tackling the elephant menace, the recent attack by a fully grown adult male bear on a 70-year-old man from Pattiyarkovilpatti Thottam in the foothills of Vellingiri hills has posed a new potential threat for the forest department.
On September 24, the sloth bear had attacked Mariappan who was critically injured and rushed to the government hospital in Coimbatore. On the following day, forest officials successfully trapped and tranquilized the animal and later released it in the TN- Kerala border.
“While we have always known of the presence of a significant bear population in the Western Ghats including the Coimbatore region, this is the first such attack in the last few years. Usually, bears do not venture out of their habitats deep inside the forests,” a senior forest official said.
According to most recent wildlife census, the Western Ghats has a thriving bear population. “Although we have not done a specific census of bears, we sight dropping and footprints when we go looking for tigers and other animals. Our camera traps have also recorded a handful of bears in different locations in the Coimbatore forest division,” the official said.
However, the department is not too worried about more potential bear-human conflicts as they claim that the animal feeds mostly on fruits and vegetables and seldom steps out of the forest to attack humans. “Even in the most recent case, villagers said that they had spotted the bear for over a week in and around their village but mistook it to be a wild boar and did not report to us. If public alert us of animal movement, then our staff will ensure that the possibility of a conflict is minimised,” DFO Thirunavukkarasu said.