On February 11, 2014, K Devraj was attacked by a mob at Kallare village in Alur taluka.
When I met him at his office the day after, Devraj had a big bandage wrapped around his head, and the left side of his face was swollen from the beating.
He was miserable, and he had good reason to be. As Range Forest Officer for Alur, he was the face of authority on the frontlines of the man-elephant conflict in Hassan. The assault he had endured at the hands of the locals was one more painful reminder that the situation had escalated far beyond his ability to cope.
Early in the morning of the previous day Krishnegowda, a farmer in Kallare village, was heading towards his farm when a tusker charged him. Krishnegowda was trampled to death. When Devraj visited the scene as part of his official duties, enraged locals turned on him and on other visiting officials.
The mob violence was symptomatic of a public fury that had increased with each such attack, and now had reached a boiling point. The tolerance with which the locals initially regarded the elephants had worn thin; official promises to solve the problem only served to add fuel to the local ire. The villagers saw in each attack, each destroyed crop, each death, a reinforcement of their belief that authority cared only for the elephants, but not for the humans involved in the conflict.
"They demand that we come to the spot to see for ourselves – but when we do, we get beaten up"
“Look at the missed calls,” Devraj said, pushing his cell phone across the table towards me. “Each day, I get 30 to 40 calls from people reporting elephant sightings, or complaining that their crops have been raided. They demand that we come to the spot to see for ourselves – but when we do, we get beaten up…”
Devraj is a gentle, soft-spoken man, expert in the field of ‘social forestry’ – the growing of trees in large numbers to yield good timber years later. He had been posted to Hassan because the area does not contain designated wildlife parks, and hence it was deemed that the job did not require competence in wildlife or people management.
With an ill-equipped staff of less than a dozen, Devraj spent most of his time responding to calls, chasing away elephants that had wandered onto farms and even, at times, holding back vengeful crowds hell bent on taking on the marauding elephants.
The work was fraught with risk, but Devraj’s experience had made him far more wary of the locals than of the elephants. Every time someone died or crops were damaged, furious crowds gathered at the scene and often, his arrival was the signal for the mob to vent its fury on him. He had endured several such beatings; on one occasion his injuries had proved almost fatal.
”We are just not equipped to handle this,” Devraj said to me that day.
Some six years earlier, on November 6, 2008, four elephants had been found dead beside a canal in Kappsoge village, close to Nanjangud town. More carcasses were subsequently discovered in the region.
Post-mortem examinations led to a verdict of death by cyanide poisoning. The inference was that farmers had intentionally poisoned the elephants, and used tractors to push their bodies into the canal.
The news attracted reporters from major media outlets. A day later, the senior council of judges of the Karnataka High Court, on the basis of a news report in The Hindu, filed a suo moto petition.
Matters moved at somnolent pace until 2011, when Vikramjit Sen took over as Chief Justice of Karnataka. The judge, who cared deeply for elephants, took proactive note of the case and, at his instigation, a committee was formed to investigate elephant deaths in the state.
In the intervening years since the discovery of elephant carcasses in Kappsoge, the conflict had intensified. Farmers, incensed alike by elephant raids and official apathy, fought back with poison, guns, and illegal electrified fences. In southern Karnataka alone, 30 elephants were killed that year.
The committee submitted a report that was not made public. Chief Justice Sen was dissatisfied. He argued that the killing of elephants could not be viewed in isolation, but should be examined against the larger context.
With Sen in the chair, a high level bench of the Karnataka high court began probing various environmental decisions taken by the state, such as the digging of trenches, the proliferation of windmills, systematic encroachment into protected land, fragmentation of habitats, mining, the methodology of fixing and paying compensation, the degradation of reserved forests, etc.
Since these hearings were on the basis of a suo moto petition, the court was itself the petitioner and the state government the respondent. Concerned citizens, interest groups and several advocates attached themselves to the case as co-petitioners. The case took on a life of its own, expanding its brief from the Kappsoge tragedy to the wider question of how to save elephants from getting killed across the state and, crucially, how to resolve the escalating conflict situation.
It was not the first attempt at finding a solution in Hassan. In 2006, a committee had been set up under the leadership of wildlife scientist Ajay Desai and Appayya, a former Chief Conservation Officer of Karnataka. The committee estimated a population of 25 elephants, and recommended that they be captured and removed from the region. In 2011, the state Forest Department had on the basis of this report sought permission from the Ministry of Environment and Forests to capture the elephants of Hassan.
The MoEF gave its consent. A lawyer from Mysore, who had empaneled himself in the case, however intervened to argue that the real encroachers were the people, not the elephants. While hearing the objection, the court stayed the MoEF’s order for capture and demanded that the state government provide adequate reasoning for its decision.
The court asked that the MoEF appear in court. The director of Project Elephant, a body under the MoEF that was mandated to look into all elephant-related issues including conflict, failed to appear in person. Instead, he sent a note to the effect that a new committee had been constituted to examine the issues.
The state government was already facing intense heat from the activist court. Decisions were being taken elsewhere, but it was the government that had to appear before the court and face its relentless questioning.
Exasperated, the state government overturned the MoEF committee and set up one of its own, called the Karnataka Elephant Task Force. It included the members of the MoEF committee, but also experts in the field and various petitioners in the case. The committee was briefed to examine all elephant-related issues in the state, with special emphasis on the Hassan conflict.
In September 2012, the Karnataka Elephant Task Force submitted a comprehensive report that recognized the futility of a one size fits all solution. Instead, it proposed a zone-based approach to the problem and sought to divide the state into three zones, each with a different set of objectives and plan of action:
The Elephant Management Zones
The management and conservation of Elephants will depend on the zone they fall under. As per the report, they are categorised as:
The Conservation Zone:
This would include all landscapes with large populations of wild elephants. In such areas, the emphasis would be on maintaining habitat integrity by protecting existing elephant corridors. To mitigate conflict, elephant populations would be confined within these natural ranges using non-lethal electrified fences, elephant-proof trenches and other barriers. The contiguous Bandipur-Nagarahole region is the most obvious, but not the only, example of such a zone.
The Co-existence Zone:
This category would comprise intermediate regions that lie between the larger habitats and small, fragmented forest patches. Here the emphasis would be on co-existence through carefully calibrated sharing of space between elephants and humans. While the location of such zones were to be determined through precise field surveys, the forests north of the River Cauvery up to the Gangavara Reserve Forest in Kodagu district, and the forests of western Sakaleshpur taluk in Hassan district, are logical examples of such zoning. The future management of these zones and their reclassification, if needed, would depend on the measured efficacy of the co-existence model.
The Removal Zone:
This category would incorporate those regions where human density was high and elephant-human conflict had grown to unacceptable levels. Such regions would be characterized by small, patchy forests incapable of sustaining sizeable elephant populations – the kind of environment that would lead elephants to wander into human zones. The Alur-Arkalgud talukas and the Savandurga region of Tumkur district are good exemplars. The committee recommended that before removing elephants from such areas, barricades had to be erected to ensure that there would be no subsequent influx of new elephant herds.
The zonal classification makes prima facie sense, but ignores one crucial fact: Elephants are wide-ranging in nature, and do not confine themselves within neat man-made lines. For instance, elephants in the conservation zone could – in all likelihood, would – wander into the contiguous co-existence zone; this in turn would increase elephant density in the latter and set up conflict situations as the delicate balance was tilted.
The elephant is covered by the Wildlife Protection Act, which means that even if it were to intrude into your backyard, you cannot shoot it down.
We seek to conserve our elephant population by protecting its natural habitat. This works in the case of animals such as the tiger, which most often tends to remain inside protected forests. However, elephants are by nature far-ranging, and will tend to roam outside designated territories.
This is the crux of the problem: How do you protect an animal that has a legal shield, but wanders into areas meant for human habitation? For instance, it is easy to understand that the elephants in Bandipur cannot be tampered with, but it cannot as easily be argued a wild elephant that wanders into Mysore should be allowed to roam free, and must not be captured or chased.
This is the question the people of Hassan ask: If you say that an elephant cannot be in Mysore, why do you similarly not say that an elephant cannot be on my property in Hassan? The question is particularly relevant because the Hassan region has not been a typical forest with elephants (in living memory of people), and therefore the people living there have not encroached on the elephant’s natural habitat.
The situation in Hassan is weird. On a few occasions in the past, elephants had been captured and removed, and yet they keep coming back. In our report it has been demarcated as a removal zone; my hope is that one day in the future, it could develop into a co-existence zone.
The committee wanted to have a larger vision, rather than react in knee-jerk fashion to conflict headlines. Given that the habitats of people and elephants occasionally overlap, we wanted to create areas where elephants would take priority, other areas where human beings would be given top priority, and still other regions – places in between the forests and the towns, for instance – where co-existence could be possible.
In our report we used the term Elephant Removal Zone, but if I could rewrite it today I would call it a Human Priority Zone.
The court studied the report submitted by the Karnataka Elephant Task Force.
On January 20, 2014, three weeks before I met him for the first time, Devraj was in his office grappling with the usual influx of elephant sightings and damage reports when he got a call from his senior officer.
“We have got all necessary clearances to remove your elephants,” the official told Devraj. “We are sending you ten captive elephants; as soon as they get there, you can start the capture operation.”
This is the third part of my narrative series on the man-elephant conflict in Hassan. The previous installments:
The Story of Suprita: In which a carefree young girl crosses paths with an enraged elephant
The War of the Worlds: In which man and elephant confront each other in the forests and farms of Karnataka, attitudes harden, and battle-lines are drawn
In the following installment, go into the heart of an elephant capture