“I have seen this video on Whatsapp,” said Karnataka Forest Minister B Ramanath Rai. “I cried. If you see the video, no person on earth will have the heart to recommend removal of elephants.”
The minister was referring to my video of the capture of a wild elephant at Hassan, one of 23 that were captured from the area. He was speaking to an invited audience of scientists, environmentalists, conservationists, NGOs and advocacy groups, besides farmers and planters from the Coorg region which has been affected by the man-elephant conflict I have been covering.
It was the sort of moment journalists hope for, the reason we become journalists.
When we go into the field to research and report, the unstated hope is that our stories will create impact, provoke thought, spark discussion and debate around policy, and become a catalyst for change.
That moment came to me on August 26, 2015, at a one-day workshop in Mysore organized by the Karnataka Forest Department to discuss issues relating to human-elephant conflict.
The meeting began on a quiet, practical note with Chief Wildlife Warden Ravi Ralph detailing the short- and long-term measures his team has taken to reduce the dimensions of the conflict.
He talked of the creation of barriers using old rail tracks, non-lethal electric fences and trenches to keep the elephants from infringing on the farmers’ space, the setting up of a rapid action force to respond to instances of conflict, and equitable compensation mechanisms to help ease the damage caused to lives and crops.
In the long-term, said Ralph, the Forest Department was looking to create elephant corridors and develop long-term conflict-reduction and co-existence models. The urgent need for these measures was underlined when Ralph pointed out that Karnataka is home to 20 per cent of the Asian elephants in India.
Ajay Desai, one of the foremost global experts on Asian elephants, provided context by explaining why elephants range far and wide. He show-cased the work he had done with radio-collared elephants and range maps, and pointed out that there are some elephants that habitually raid crops while others almost never do. Such behavior is individual-specific, he argued, with the young learning from adults.
Desai, part of the Karnataka Elephant Task Force that had recommended the removal of the elephants of Hassan, argued that some human landscapes hold no long-term future for elephants. Where such situations exist, he argued, the elephants must be removed. We have to manage elephant populations intelligently, he exhorted – remove them where necessary, and build heavy duty fences to keep them within the boundaries of the reserved forests.
Elephant Task Force member MD Madhusudhan, who spoke next, in part contradicted his colleague’s position. Repudiating the phrase “elephant removal zone” that had been integral to the task force report, Madhu advocated replacing it with “human priority zone”.
Drawing heavily on his recent paper, Madhusudhan cited examples to underline his point. One was an experiment he had been involved with, in which instead of fencing off the forests, collectives of farmers fenced in their crops. This shifted the onus of maintaining the fences from the forest department to the farmers themselves who, he pointed out, have the most to lose and hence are more likely to maintain the fences than any official department. He also mooted early warning systems that would allow humans and animals to co-exist, citing NCF’s work in Valparai as a model of such a system working.
Unlike Desai, who spoke in English, Madhusudhan spoke on Kannada and was greeted with prolonged cheers from a crowd that had swelled over the course of the morning as members of various Raitha Sangas from different districts poured in.
Praveen Bhargav spoke of the legal issues in acquiring land for elephants, and AJT Johnsingh made the case for improving elephant habitats. Then came an unexpected flashpoint. Surendra Varma of the IISc, the next speaker on the schedule, was setting up his laptop when a man walked uninvited onto the dais and took over the microphone.
“We have had enough with the elephants,” he said to cheers. “They are killing our people and destroying our plantations. It is time the forest department got used to the word ‘cull’”.
He was, I learnt later, CA Subbaiah, a wealthy farmer from the Coorg region. He was followed by a manager of Tata Coffee, who showcased a video where elephants took down an electrified fence and intruded into human habitation. “Remove the elephants,” he demanded, arguing that measures such as fences were not foolproof.
A member of the Coffee Board from Coorg addressed the issue of compensation. When an elephant raid destroys a coffee plantation, he said, the forest department provides one year’s crop value as compensation. This, he said, was not enough, because the destruction meant he had to plant afresh, and it takes eight years before the fresh plants become productive. He was followed in quick succession by three other gentlemen from Coorg, all visibly angry at the depredations caused by elephants and demanding that they be removed.
The succession of planters from the Coorg area demanding the immediate removal of the elephants irked the forest department officials, who invited farmers from other parts of Karnataka to speak.
Halluappa, from the Alur taluka, stepped up to thank the department for capturing the elephants, but added, “Although you caught 23 elephants, it was really two male elephants that were the real problem and now that they are gone, it has been relatively peaceful.” However, he added, the conflict situation remains, albeit in low key – so what, he asked, did the forest department plan to do about it?
Farmers from Hassan, followed by others from Chamarajnagar and Tumkur, spoke in their turn. The farmers from Tumkur pointed out that the region historically never had an elephant problem. “Now they have begun showing up. We will live with the elephants,” he said, “if you guys do something to make sure we do not suffer.”
A farmer from Sakleshpur argued that there were many elephants in the region and if land was a problem, he was happy to sell his land to the forest department provided they paid a fair market price.
The tenor of the meeting was set, and it was probably not what the forest department anticipated. There was anger in the room, and a sense that the affected people would accept nothing less than the total removal of the elephants. The lunch break came as a much-needed safety valve.
Post lunch, Head of the Forest Force for Karnataka Vinay Luthra took the stage and diffused the collective anger by addressing the various issues, point by point. He pointed out that the forest department was investing in rail track fences, and that this would lead to a visible lessening of conflict situations – we have put the solution in place, give it time to work, was his message.
Ruling out the procurement of farm land to house elephants, Luthra argued that it was way outside his department’s budget. Five years of our entire budget will go into buying one estate in Sakleshpur and even if we did it, it wouldn’t solve the problem, he pointed out.
Then he took the central demand – that all elephants in the region should be captured – head on. “Have you seen the Hassan capture video by Kalyan Varma?” he asked the audience. “If someone in this room wants to suggest removal of elephants wholesale, I suggest that he takes a look at the video first.”
That was when Minister Rai stood up and spoke of how moved he had been when he watched the capture video. “If you see the video, no person on earth will have the heart to recommend the removal of elephants,” he said.
Luthra said that though the wholesale removal of elephants seemed the logical solution, the forest department had watched the video and as a result, had decided to abandon the policy of wholesale capture of elephants.
On the surface, the meeting seemed fairly straightforward: There were elephants in or near human habitation; conflicts had developed as a consequence; the affected parties wanted to hear solutions.
But beneath that surface, I had gradually begun to sense something else at work, something darker, less black and white. The substance farmers from Hassan, Tumkur and Chamarajnagar – the ones at most risk, as the conflict had taken their loved ones and destroyed their crops – were moderate in their demands. They were okay to live in proximity with elephants – all they asked was that their safety, and the safety of their livelihoods, be ensured.
On the other hand, the large-scale commercial planters from places like Coorg – who, unlike the farmers, were not at risk of life – were the hardliners. They were the ones demanding a zero-sum solution: remove all elephants, no compromise. It occurred to me that this section was using the very real conflict to push for a radical solution intended not to save lives, but to maximize their own profits. It seemed to me that the conflict in the room was compassion versus commercial calculus; that in course of the meeting, the human-elephant conflict had been gradually overtaken by a human-human conflict.
In my turn, I spoke to this point. There is, I argued, real conflict and perceived conflict. While the former deserved to be addressed through concrete measures, what the latter required was more proactive engagement by the forest department with the affected people – a very real need I had noticed while reporting this segment of my Hassan narrative.
My words, based on the experience of having spent prolonged periods of time in Hassan in the midst of the conflict, appeared to have resonated. Responding to my comments, Vinay Luthra agreed with the point and suggested that a Standard Operating Procedure needed to be developed to manage conflict situations and I was asked later for my suggestions for the document.
It was, for me, that magic moment that occasionally comes in journalism. Reporting the conflict, and the capture, was hard at all times and heart-breaking on occasion – but knowing that the story had created impact, and that impact in turn was triggering a reappraisal of existing policies and the implementation of new ones, came as validation for the work I, and many of my peers, do in this field.