In the wild forests of Kerala, as the sun sets in for the day at Vadakkanad, the villagers develop a certain sprint in their steps, hurrying towards the safety of their homes. This is a measure taken in great concern - to avoid any unpleasant encounters with the raiders of the night, the Asian elephants.
Surrounded by the thick growth of teak, areca-nut palm tree and silver-oak, there is a small hamlet called Vadakkanad nestled among several small villages along the fringes of Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary, Kerala. The community members who are mostly farmers, spend their days cultivating paddy, banana, areca nut, coconut and coffee in their agricultural farms. It is this proximity of the village to the protected area and the smell of freshly growing crops and fruits that attracts wild elephants towards the village, causing an unprecedented rise in crop and financial loss. According to reports by the Kerala Forest Department, a total amount of INR 2,381,200 was paid as compensation to about 871 farmers across Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary in 2016 to address negative cases of human elephant interactions.
The perils of humans and elephants living in close proximity are not limited to Vadakkanad. Over the years, small herds of three to four tuskers have become habitual raiders, frequenting the agricultural fields of Manalimoola, Pallivayal, Odapallam, Valluvady, Vellakettu, Kaloorkunn and Thoramangalam areas of Noolpuzha Gram Panchayat in Wayanad district, causing panic and inherent loss of crops to farming communities. The attempts of the rapid response teams, staff of Kurichiyat Range and night-watchers to protect the farmlands and drive away the pachyderms, using crude methods like lighting firecrackers have proven to be futile.
Earlier in the month of March, one of the elephants from this herd of raiders was located and collared in the Annpathekar tribal settlement of Kurichiyat Range, Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary in Kerala by WWF-India, in partnership with the Kerala Forest Department. While WWF-India is working alongside the Kerala Forest Department to precisely monitor and study the behavior of the collared elephant, there are various mitigation methods and activities deployed on-ground that have significantly reduced the impact of crop depredation caused by the marauding elephants.
One of the most used methods of protection from elephants is the Elephant Proof Trench(EPT) - a manually dug pit running along the boundaries of the villages and/or protected areas, acting as a mild deterrent to stop elephants from crossing over. Currently, nearly 90% of the forest boundary is covered by EPT and while the coverage is relatively good, the overall effectiveness of the barrier is really low due to various reasons. Poor soil conditions during monsoons make the soil loose and swampy, interspersed by rocks jutting out at various intervals thus, acting as natural weak spots for the elephants and other animals to breach EPT.
Other methods include planting electric fences along the same routes. These fences, operating solely on solar energy, give out a mild shock in cycles of 2-3 seconds of contact, thus keeping the elephants away.
In partnership with the Kerala Forest Department, WWF-India has also installed solar fences in four villages of Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary. Maintained by the community members, the fences have been crucial in significantly reducing the frequency of crop damage by fending off elephants and other herbivores from entering the settlement in search of food. About 64 households in the three villages are protected by electric/solar fences installed by WWF-India in Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary.
In this age of urbanisation, the pace with which elephants are losing their habitat due to rapid degradation, a change in the way land is used, and disruptions of corridors in Wayanad, communities play a crucial role in conservation. Interventions such as elephant proof barriers not only help in securing their livelihoods but also help in protecting the elephants from retaliatory killings and human-elephant conflict.