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Co-existing with wild elephants

I bought Savera farm in 2012. At that time, I had vaguely heard that the area had an elephant problem. While visiting the farm in the process of buying it, I did enquire with the then owners whether wild elephants visited their farm. Their response was never. They said that while elephants did sometimes come to the other side of the river around a Km from the farm, they never crossed the river and came this side. I also did not find any tell-tale signs of elephants visit like dung, broken trees, etc.

When I was at the sub-register office for registering the sale deed, the owner’s brother who had come along for signature (as it was originally a family property) jokingly asked me what I was going to do when elephants come to the farm. Would I be sitting with a gun in hand to chase them away? I brushed aside his sarcasm as I thought he was saying it because he was not on good terms with the owner.

Waking up to the reality

It was around a month since I had bought the farm. I had managed to get a worker family (Anita, Anil and their mother) to live on the farm. I was in Bangalore and it was around 12 midnight when I got a call from them. Having woken up from sleep, I was irritated why they were calling me so late. Anita on the other end was not bothered. She was exited and telling me that there was a big group of elephants in the farm and they were destroying everything. I was indeed shocked. I told her not to venture out of the house till morning, not to do anything stupid and just stay put. She was back on the phone within another half an hour. Now she was saying that the elephants were all camping right next to the house and it was a big group including calves. I again repeated my advice to her and hung up.

By next morning the elephants were gone. She said that they had caused extensive damage – broken several areca, banana and coffee plants. I rushed to the farm first thing next morning. Upon arrival, they showed me the elephant damage – broken fence at couple of places and a few areca and banana plants broken. The damage ofcourse was exaggerated by the workers. But elephant visit and some damage was indeed a fact.

The initial reaction

When I called the previous owners, they suggested that we should burst crackers to prevent elephants from coming. That as soon as we hear the crackers being burst in the neighbouring village, we should also start bursting to scare away the elephants. They also sent some crackers across to our workers the very next day.

We had another couple of visits within the next week or two. While the workers did burst the crackers, it did not make much difference. Elephants kept coming. That’s when I realised that the entire area was prone to frequent encounters with elephant. I was told locally that there was a group of around 25 elephants who constantly moved around in a 100 sq km area in and around our village. I started hearing so many cases of encounters with wild elephants in our vicinity – of human injuries and even death in some cases; elephants being killed in some others; several cases of elephants destroying crops, plants and implements in farms around us.

Deciding to co-exist peacefully

After a few futile initial attempts to scare away elephants by bursting crackers and making noise, I decided to stop bursting crackers or doing anything aggressively to chase the elephants. I instructed my workers also to just stay put, not venture outside after dark, and not to do anything to disturb them. The elephants kept coming off and on. Once around 6.30 in the evening I saw a group of 7 or 8 elephants including calves within 200 feet in my farm. Another time when I was alone in the farm, I saw a mother and its calf eating banana plants right next to my house within 20-30 feet. I was sitting on the terrace just shining a torch light on them without making any noise, they just kept eating, glancing at me now and then, without showing any aggression. They just quietly left after 10-15 minutes.

But after we changed our approach to dealing with elephants, I noticed a clear change in their behaviour. They never damaged anything in my farm. They just came ate some banana plants or jackfruits and left. This was in sharp contrast to what was happening in my neighbouring farms, where they were aggressively bursting crackers and trying to chase them away. In these farms the elephants caused deliberate damage – destroying the nursery structures, bending and breaking aluminium irrigation pipes, breaking trees, etc. On several occasions I had my aluminium irrigation pipes lying around in the farm as irrigation was in progress. But they did not damage even one pipe. They even took care to avoid stamping on the pipes while walking around.

But I still had three problems. Firstly, I had a lot of banana plants and these were their favourite food. Secondly, I had installed drip irrigation in the block that I had newly acquired and was developing from scratch. Here when elephants were moving around the pipes got entangled to their feet and inadvertently, they ended up dragging these pipes along as they walked. Thirdly in this block I had also adopted the bio-diverse natural farming model (please read my blog on the subject) of intense multi-crop planting, were literally every 2-3 ft interval there was a plant of some kind. So, when elephants moved around some plants getting trampled under their feet was inevitable. But inspite of that we found that mostly they tended to move on roads to avoid causing damage to plants.

The solar fence

Keeping the above challenges in mind we decided to go in for a simple and basic solar fencing around the farm to prevent wild elephants from entering. For those of you who may not be aware, solar fence is a few strands of fencing wire connected to a single battery that emits DC voltage in pulses through the wire. While it does give a shock in pulses if you touch it, it does not cause death or any serious harm to anyone touching. This did have an effect and elephant visits to the farm stopped. The fact that open space and roads were available all around our farm ensured that their path was not totally blocked. It only meant a small deviation to avoid the solar fence.

Elephants get innovative

This continued until one day they broke the fence and entered. It was just getting dark around 7PM when one of the workers said that he heard elephants entering. Just as a piece of information I have around 6 houses inside the farm where my workers live. This guy is always drunk in the evening and hence everyone ignored him saying that elephants can’t enter as the solar fence was on and instead started making fun of him. After some time, he again came and said he was sure that elephants were right behind his house. Again, everyone just laughed him off. It was only next morning that we all realised that he was telling the truth. A big group of elephants had indeed entered the farm near his house and had indeed eaten banana plants right next to his house. But by morning they were gone.

How did they enter with the solar fence on? was the question on our minds. When we investigated what we found showed how intelligent these animals were. The solar fence was running along a barbed wire fence at the bottom, on granite poles with insulators. What elephants had done was break a couple of granite poles by pressing at the bottom of the pole with their feet. Once the pole falls the wire got grounded and they crossed over. They had done the same while exiting through another point. We had to find a solution.

And the solution was putting GI poles with an insulator at the very bottom. So the GI pole was part of the fence were the DC current flowed and would give a shock if touched. This has worked and no elephants have entered our farm after that, except once when they somehow managed to topple the GI pole. But this time they just passed by the boundary road without getting into the farm and just using our irrigation tank for bathing. Toppled fence at two places was the only damage

Some episodes in our neighbourhood

There was a case were a farm supervisor was particularly aggressive with the elephants. He would not only burst crackers but even throw the string crackers onto the elephants even when passed by his farm. One fateful day when he was out in the farm early in the morning (as was his routine) the elephants lay waiting. He was killed by the elephants.

In another case someone used to throw the string crackers onto the elephants back. As you may be aware the ears of the elephants are super sensitive to detect even the smallest noise. So, when these string crackers fall on their back and keep bursting continuously for quite some time and it’s very difficult for them to get it out of their back which they can’t access, the elephants really go crazy. The sound boomerangs in their super sensitive ears and it’s a real torture. This guy used to move around on a motor bike. And he was also killed by the elephants on one fateful day late in the evening.

There is also a story of a farm where they had illegally used live wire fencing and an elephant calf was electrocuted. Sometime after this incident a big herd of elephants came to his farm and went berserk, systemically destroying everything in site. A clear unambiguous vengeance attack.

The capture

This group of around 25 elephants had indeed become a problem. Unlike in Coorg or Chickmagalur there are no big natural forests nearby where elephants can be chased. The entire 100 sq km area they move around is inhabited by humans and dotted with farms, with only a few small patches of forests inadequate to keep these elephants confined. Ofcourse this area used to be on the traditional elephant migration corridor. With human-elephant conflict reaching serious levels and with several causalities reported in the area and protests by villagers, the matter reached the Karnataka High Court. The court appointed an expert committee of environmentalists and forest officers to study the problem and suggest solutions.

The only viable solutions that emerged was to capture the elephants and move them to forest dept camps. It was felt that relocating them to another forest would not succeed as elephants are known to return to the same area based on their deeply entrenched genetic memory. With the blessings of the High Court operation capture was launched. 22 of the 25 elephants were captured and taken to far away camps within a span of 3-4 months. To the credit of the forest dept the whole operation was managed very well using tranquiliser darts and their captive tamed elephants to capture the wild ones. This happened between Nov 2015 to Feb 2016.

The aftermath

With bulk of the herd gone the elephant visits came down drastically. For a period of around a year there were almost no wild elephant encounters in the area. But with the forests all around shrinking, food and water sources in the forests drying up, widespread human encroachment of elephant habitats and corridors, and a thriving elephant population due to successful conservation measures – the truce was too good to last. Within a year another herd was back in the area. Since then we have had several visits by wild elephants around our farm. Largely the solar fence, now reinforced with GI poles, has worked. They have avoided coming into the farm and have been moving around it, except on one occasion recently, cited earlier, when they toppled the GI poles and entered.

Our latest encounter was with a group of around 25-30 elephants that came within 100 feet of our house in the forest patch right in front. While the people from the forest dept and local villagers chased them away, 3 got separated from the herd and stayed put at the border of the forest patch right in front of our house (within 100 feet) distance) for 2 full days before they managed to move away and possibly reunite with the herd.

To sum it up

We have realised that the elephant behaviour has a direct co-relation with how we treat them. When we use aggressive tactics to scare them and chase them, they too react aggressively causing harm to us. But when our approach is peaceful and calm, they generally do not cause harm to us. While some minor inadvertent unintentional damage may be inevitable when such a huge animal moves around, by and large they do not cause any deliberate destruction in such circumstances. Afterall we have encroached into their habitat and their corridors in use for thousands of years and ingrained in their genetic memory. So only way forward is to try to peacefully co-exist with wild elephants and avoid aggravation of the conflict.

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