Man-elephant conflict: Karnataka conservationists, forest officials apprehensive of task force

In order to contain rising man-elephant conflict, the Karnataka government has constituted a task force in four districts—Hassan, Chikkamagaluru, Mysuru and Kodagu—but some conservationists and forest department officials are not impressed given that “government policies have led to the fragmentation of elephants’ habitats”.

A senior forest officer said on the condition of anonymity that Monday’s decision to set up the task force was made with the upcoming elections in mind. The officer also pointed to the recently introduced Karnataka Land Grabbing Prohibition (Amendment) Bill 2022, “which seeks to avoid criminal proceedings against farmers who have encroached on government land in rural areas”.

“We have records of chasing elephants in 1954 from a place called Thaneerhulla in Hassan. Hassan since then has lost many forest areas owing to the construction of Hemavathi and Yagati dams. We had to let go of more reserve forest areas to rehabilitate villagers who had lost their land because of the dams. Elephants permanently lost these forests. Today, land grants in the forest areas are being made by revenue department officials… With these being the ground realities, how could one mitigate man-elephant conflict?” the official said.

In 2013, the Karnataka High Court directed the government to declare notified forest areas within the elephant corridor as reserve forests. The state has around 1.27 lakh hectares of section-4 forest land waiting to be declared as reserve forests under section 17 of the Karnataka Forest Act.

Wildlife conservationist Giridhar Kulkarni welcomed the government decision. “However, this is not sufficient as the focus should be more on long-term measures such as removing encroachments, cancelling illegal grants, eviction of illegal resorts or homestays in elephant corridors and habitats. Also the process of notifying section-4 areas as section 17 (under which the government finally publishes a notification to declare land as a reserve forest) has to be done expeditiously. The expansion of the Pushpagiri sanctuary, the proposal for which has been pending for many years and which could have played a key role in conflict resolution, has to be notified as quickly as possible. The majority of the recommendations of the elephant task force that was setup by the high court are not yet implemented,” he said.

The task force would patrol jumbo-infested areas, monitor elephants’ movements in human habitats, agriculture fields and coffee estates, and drive them back into forests under the direction of deputy conservators of forests in the districts.

“We have already been doing this. What is new that the task force would do?” the senior forest officer said.

“The task force must share information about the movement of wild elephants and create awareness among the people not to move in the forest areas. A control room must be set up in the headquarters of every task force and share the contact number with the citizens. The task force members must be provided with walkie-talkie, gun and crackers, which are necessary to drive back the wild jumbos into forests. Three Bolero jeeps must be provided to each district elephant task force to reach the jumbo-infested areas immediately. The help of police must be sought at the time of driving back the wild jumbos into forests,” Monday’s government order said.

Another wildlife conservationist, Joseph Hoover, said the government had failed to conserve forests.

“Despite being aware of the grim situation, Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai has allowed his cabinet to dole out deemed forest landscape to encroachers in Hassan, Chikamagalur, Uttara Kannada and Shimoga districts. It is for the lack of forest landscapes and the fragmentation of animal corridors that elephants are constantly vying for space and food with humans,” he said.

Hoover alleged that the government was allowing encroachers to legalise their forest encroachments. “Unfortunately, the land-grabbing legislation hastily cleared by our elected representatives has rendered the forest department toothless. The department can no longer file a case against people who encroach on forests,” he said. “Considering the high density of elephant population (Karnataka has more than 6,000) and the impact of climate change-triggered extreme weather events, the government should have augmented forest cover.”

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