New Delhi: Environmentalists and wildlife activists have pressed the panic button in the elephant corridor connecting Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu where the Asian tusker is under siege.
According to an estimate by the NGO Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI), more than 20 elephants have died between January 2007 and January 2008 in southern India as a result of man-animal conflict.
Development has eaten into the vast green swathes of the Bandipore wildlife sanctuary, the Nagarhole national park, the Madukkarai forest division, the largest reserve of Asiatic elephants, and the corridor between the Parambikulam wildlife sanctuary and Pooyamkutty genepool area, straddling the three States.
The areas are loose parts of an almost contiguous elephant reserve in southern India.
In January, four elephants of a herd were crushed to death by a speeding train at Kurumbanpalayam near Madukkarai in the Coimbatore forest division.
Two full-grown elephants, including a pregnant cow, and an infant, were hit by a train speeding at 140 kmph, and killed on the spot. The fourth one, a 30-year-old bull, was dragged to about 250 metres and its body parts were mutilated on the tracks.
S Guruvayurappan, the WPSI project coordinator for southern India, told IANS: "The site where the accident took place falls under the Palakkad railway division and is part of the Project Elephant (a government initiative) area. The site is a traditional elephant route.
"There are about seven such passages between Madukkarai and Palakkad (including the Walayar forest area). As it has been a traditional elephant corridor, the herds do not come into conflict with men. But when the passages are blocked or disturbed by man-made intrusions, the animals turn violent."
The WPSI has written to the Prime Minister and the Ministry of Environment and Forests to have the speed of trains that pass through wildlife sanctuaries across southern India reduced to 20 km per hour, get loco-pilots and railway employees trained to study elephant mobility patterns and have wildlife signboards placed to reduce elephant mortality on the tracks.
"There has to be better coordination between the Railway Ministry, forest officials and wildlife NGOs to tackle the problem."
According to the Wildlife Trust of India, more than 118 elephants have been killed in train accidents across the country since 1987.
In November-December 2007, at least five elephant deaths were reported from the Wayanad plateau region in Kerala and from the Bandipore forest reserve along the Karnataka-Tamil Nadu border where farmers tapped electricity from high-voltage overhead wires to power electric fences around their paddy fields, outlying the reserve, right on the migration corridor. The elephants, which strayed into the villages in search of food, were electrocuted.
Though State forest officials denied the deaths, WPSI officials investigating the elephant mortalities found that the bulk of farming households in the Wayanad plateau region had powered fences around their plots with electricity drawn directly from power supply lines in the area.
"Elephants have largely been the victims of the human-animal conflict in the region. Though their deaths can be attributed to several reasons like culling for ivory trade and poaching, punitive action for crop raiding has been the single largest cause for concern," Belinda Wright, executive director of the WPSI, told IANS.
"Electric fencing has caused physical damage and killed several tuskers in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
"I toured the Bandipore sanctuary and Madumalai area last year and came across huge conflicts in the agriculture zone. It is an elephant corridor. Electric fencing per se does not kill elephants because it is powered by low-voltage electricity. The fence repels the herds, keeps them away from raiding crops. But I found that farmers were tapping direct electricity from overhead wires and laying high-voltage live wires along the elephant tracks," Wright said.
A World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) study says that nearly 20 per cent of the world's population lives within the range of endangered Asiatic elephants.
Compounding the problem is the proposed Athirapilli Hydro-Electric Project in Kerala, which will pass through the elephant corridor between the Parambikulam wildlife sanctuary (also a proposed tiger reserve) and the Pooyamkutty genepool area, a part of the Thattekkad sanctuary in Idukki district.
The project has been cleared by the Ministry of Environment and Forests.
"The area is part of an elephant reserve and a permanent migration route in the Pooyamkutty genepool area. It is home to several endemic and endangered species and the near-extinct primitive Kadar tribe of Kerala. A power project in the area would mean serious destruction of ecology and wildlife," Guruvayurappan said.
The WPSI has mounted a global web petition campaign www.thepetitionsite.com to save the pachyderms in the southern Indian wildlife reserves.
With an estimated 25,000 elephants, India accounts for 50 per cent of the world's population of Asiatic jumbos.