How the move to revive elephant corridors has become a political problem in Tamil Nadu | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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How the move to revive elephant corridors has become a political problem in Tamil Nadu

By | Edited by Anish Yande
May 19, 2024 12:19 AM IST

The state has witnessed wildlife conflict involving elephants, tigers and wild boars, especially on the periphery of forests in Coimbatore, Nilgiris, and Hosur

The Tamil Nadu government's initiative to restore all the traditional elephant corridors in the state to facilitate unrestricted movement of wildlife without running into conflict with humans has become a flashpoint with major political parties and prominent farmers' organisations objecting to the plan.

The Tamil Nadu government's initiative to restore all the traditional elephant corridors in the state to facilitate unrestricted movement of wildlife without running into conflict with humans has become a flashpoint with major political parties and prominent farmers' organisations objecting to the plan. (Shutterstock/Representative) PREMIUM
The Tamil Nadu government's initiative to restore all the traditional elephant corridors in the state to facilitate unrestricted movement of wildlife without running into conflict with humans has become a flashpoint with major political parties and prominent farmers' organisations objecting to the plan. (Shutterstock/Representative)

The ambitious move claimed to be part of mitigation measures against the increasing cases of human-animal conflict, is now being termed an attempt to place conservation over the basic rights of people living close to forests for generations.

The ruling DMK government under MK Stalin is under pressure with protest meetings having been held against the move across the state. If implemented, the plan will trigger large-scale displacement of land-owning farmers as well as traditional forest-dwelling tribal communities.

While the opposition AIADMK and BJP have voiced strong concerns against reviving the corridors, DMK's alliance partner the CPI is also urging farmers living along the fringes of forests to resist the initiative.

The plan

Last year, the state government constituted an expert panel to identify elephant corridors in the state under V. Naganathan, additional principal chief conservator of forests.

The panel reassessed the existing corridors in the state, including those identified in early studies conducted by the Project Elephant Division of the Union environment, forest and climate change ministry and the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI).

The panel released a list of 42 elephant corridors in April, and invited feedback from citizens on the draft report, setting a deadline of May 5.

Environmentalists supported the report as it doubled the number of corridors in the state against the 20 corridors identified under the Project Elephant Division's report in 2023 and the 19 corridors identified by the WTI.

Soon, farmers and political parties weighed in, finding faults with the report after the panel members confirmed that they recommended the revival of all the corridors by clearing obstructions including human settlements on the routes. Farmers' organisations accused the panel of being unrealistic.

Most affected areas

The synchronised wildlife census done in southern states in 2023 said Tamil Nadu was home to 2961 elephants. The state has witnessed intense wildlife conflict involving mainly elephants, tigers and wild boars, especially on the periphery of forests in Coimbatore, Nilgiris, Hosur and Sathyamangalam. The conflict is comparatively less in the Kalaikkad-Mudanthurai and Meghamalai forests in the south.

Among the affected regions, the O-Valley panchayat in the Gudalur assembly constituency in the Nilgiris has become the hub of anti-corridor protests.

The Gudalur constituency witnessed dawn-to-dusk strikes and the raising of black flags last week; protestors claim that as many as 37856 houses located in the O-Valley need to be relocated to restore the corridor.

Once a prime forest, O-Valley is now a settlement of migrants, especially the Tamils of Sri Lankan origin who came to the state as refugees because of the ethnic violence in the island nation.

“Gudalur, which shares a border with Wayanad and Malappuram forests in Kerala and Chamarajanagar and Bandipur forests in Karnataka, is home to numerous small-scale farmers, agricultural workers, and plantation labourers. The land holdings are relatively small and extend to a maximum of five cents. They face displacement and an uncertain future now that 31 of the 42 corridors listed remain within the Gudalur constituency,” local AIADMK MLA Pon Jayaseelan said.

"We will not allow any attempt to place animals above humans," he said.

Across Tamil Nadu, farmers' organisations are questioning the forest department’s haste in releasing the draft when the poll code was in place and electioneering was at its peak.

They said the corridor consolidation plan was drafted without taking the local communities into confidence or conducting discussions with them.

However, Srinivas R Reddy, the state’s chief conservator of forest told HT that residents will not be moved from their current locations and the draft plan will soon be taken up for discussion with farmers and other concerned parties through district collectors. According to him, the elephant corridor in the area will be a narrow stretch, and will not affect the general public.

But PL Sunadram, CPI leader and former MLA of Bhavanisagar expressed strong reservations about the move and questioned the forest department’s intentions.

"The draft plan was released on the Forest Department website on April 29, and people were told to give suggestions by May 7. The draft was in English, and it had 186 pages. Asking people to understand the content and give their suggestions in just a few days is completely unfair," he said.

Sundaram also said the government should have published the draft in Tamil and given people 60 days to express their views.

Former chief minister and AIADMK leader Edappadi Palaniswami expressed strong reservations against the alleged arbitrary nature of the corridor proposal, saying that the draft plan did not adhere to the criteria for the 'right of passage' that is elaborated in the Centre's elephant project.

According to tribal rights activist C R Bijoy, the Forest Rights Act of 2006 has given village forest committees in forest areas the right to protect forests and wildlife.

He blamed the state government for failing to implement the Act properly in Tamil Nadu. According to him, as per the Act, the approval of village forest committees should be taken before new projects are taken up within forests.

However, the opinion of the local people was not obtained before preparing the draft plan, he said.

Meanwhile, the forest department has said in a statement that a strategic plan for connecting the fragmented habitats of elephants in the state will be compiled only with the public's cooperation and there would be separate plans for each corridor identified.

The statement promises an Elephant Corridor Consolidation Plan after discussions with all those who are concerned.

"All possible measures will be taken to avoid man-animal negative interactions and to ensure the safety of the local public. Therefore, people are requested not to believe the rumours or misinformation about the draft elephant corridor consolidation plan," the statement said.

In 2023, the Project Elephant division identified 20 elephant corridors—15 within Tamil Nadu and five interstate corridors between Kerala, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu.

The Elephant Corridor Committee identified the 42 elephant corridors through ground validation, mapping, and surveys.

In its report, the committee said human-elephant conflict has been widespread across 20 forest divisions in Tamil Nadu, with the highest number of cases reported from the Coimbatore, Gudalur, and Hosur forest divisions and Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve.

It also suggested steps against brick kilns in the Thadagam forest fringe region of Coimbatore where the units were set up after damaging elephant corridors.

Elephant deaths and the importance of animal corridors

Electrocution is said to be the main cause of unnatural elephant deaths, followed by bait bombs, poisoning, road accidents, train collisions, and hunting.

Most unnatural deaths occur outside forests when elephants traverse the forest peripheries, as they prefer flat lands for movement between habitats. When attempting to enter plantations that farmers have secured with illegally powered fences, they frequently end up electrocuted.

Biologists and experts believe securing elephant corridors and ensuring safe elephant movement paths could curtail deaths. These corridors also help maintain sustainable populations of national heritage animals with rich genetic diversity.

Wildlife expert AJT Johnsingh said elephants are a critical species because their nomadic behaviour is immensely important to the environment.

“Herds of roaming elephants are landscape architects, facilitate seed dispersal, provide nutrition to plants and animals, are part of the forest food chain, and have an umbrella effect. Elephant corridors allow them to continue their nomadic survival mode despite shrinking forest cover by facilitating travel between distinct forest habitats. The corridors are often narrow, linear patches that establish connectivity across habitats. Additionally, elephants are genetically predisposed to never inbreed within their birth family, necessitating migration between gene pools to reproduce,” he said.

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