In 10 out of Tamil Nadu’s 32 districts, one big issue is simply not on the poll agenda of any political party. Man-animal conflict, which has taken lives of both humans and wild animals, destroyed crops and livelihoods and put endangered species under threat – this conflict is one that every political party wants to avoid making promises about.
Districts along the wild Western Ghats - Tirunelveli, Dindigul, Theni, Tirupur, Coimbatore, Nilgiris, Erode, Salem, Krishnagiri and Dharmapuri – line the boundaries of the contiguous elephant corridor into Kerala and Karnataka, as well as being home to tigers and leopards. There are 4 tiger reserves, 3 elephant reserves and 5 national parks in these areas. With rapid encroachment over many years into reserved forest land and poor will of successive governments in keeping encroachers out, man-animal conflict is on the rise.
Residents of these areas are demanding to know how political leaders plan to tackle this boiling issue. “This shows the ignorance of political parties regarding wildlife management,” said K Kalidasan, founder of Osai, a non-profit that works in environment conservation.
In these districts too, as in most parts of the state, the battle is between the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and rival Dravidian party the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). Candidates and leaders of both parties have been campaigning vigorously in these areas. Both parties have promised agricultural loan waivers for farmers as well as various other sops. But the key problem in this stretch remains unaddressed.
“When we cultivate something, we are not able to take home the full produce,” said Palanichamy, a farmer in a village called Thadaagam in Coimbatore district. “As soon as we sow the seeds, peacocks come and eat them. Once the shoots come up, wild pigs come and dig them out, and when it is time for harvest a herd of elephants come and destroy everything. We can somehow manage the peacocks and the pigs but we cannot do anything against a herd of elephants,” he agonised.
Palanichamy also laments that the compensation provided by the government is just not enough to offset the loss of livelihood, especially when the elephants arrive. “Coconut trees will give us produce for all our life time,” he explained. “In one second the elephants come and uproot and destroy these coconut trees. The government gives us a compensation of Rs 500 for every tree that has gone. The government has to find a permanent solution to this problem,” he insisted.
According to data available with the Tamil Nadu Forest Department, a large area of about 23,000 sq kms of forest cover is available in this region.
“Thadaagam village in Coimbatore is a very important corridor,” said D Rajan, an activist working in wildlife conservation. “This is situated in a gap in the Western Ghats called the ‘Palghat Pass’. Most wild animals including elephants, go from the Tamil Nadu border to the Kerala forest region through this pass. Since the crops lure them, they come here, and now it has become a regular stop,” he added.
Rajan says that where elephants go, other herbivores usually follow. “So when elephants come to the cultivated lands, they are followed by deer, gaur and wild boar. Due to this around 5000 acres of cultivated lands are destroyed every year,” he said.
As a result, many farmers have left, not just their lands and villages, but the farming occupation itself, preferring to go instead to Kerala and other states to work as construction labourers. In villages at the foothills of the Ghats in Dindigul district, wild Indian Gaurs roam freely around villages like domestic cattle. Residents in the village of Mannavanur here say that these Gaurs are unafraid of humans. “We can chase the elephants too away by bursting fire crackers but these wild Gaurs are not scared of anything.”
Destruction of cultivated lands apart, human lives have been lost in plenty and the numbers are only escalating. “When men try to chase these wild animals as they enter their cultivated lands, they are bound to lose their lives or get injured,” said wildlife conservationist D Rajan. “In a year on average, 60 to 70 lives are lost in this manner, according Forest Department records,” he said.
Loss of lives of endangered animal too has become a cause for alarm in these parts. “Farmers have started seeing these wild animals as their enemies. They throw fire crackers at them, surround the land with high voltage fencing and even poison them,” stated Rajan.
Several crores of rupees have been allocated in the state budget to deal with this man-animal conflict but experts say all measures have failed. And this is simply because political parties have not paid attention to the root cause of the trouble. “The solar electric fencing which the government had installed is a total failure. So too is the trench plan. The government is not willing to do a detailed study to eradicate this problem. Man-animal conflict is a big problem and politicians are not making an effort to understand it,” argued Kalidasan of NGO Osai.
“Wildlife conservation is secondary to our state authorities,” continued Kalidasan. “We have ample water thanks to the Western Ghats, when the whole of northern India is facing severe drought. All the rivers which run through Tamil Nadu have their source in the Western Ghats. The government has to study why animals are moving out of the Ghats in search of food and reconstruct these forests. We have to see the problems in the forests as the problem of the entire state,” he said.
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