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Home > News> Big Story > Coexisting with the gentle giants of Kodaikanal

Coexisting with the gentle giants of Kodaikanal

What does coexistence mean for elephants and people in the Kodaikanal area? Like any relationship, living alongside elephants will require work, and the willingness to keep our hearts and minds open to all possibilities

Our relationship with elephants is fascinating. Their size inspires a degree of fear but they are also seen as benevolent beings due to our cultural associations with the species.
Our relationship with elephants is fascinating. Their size inspires a degree of fear but they are also seen as benevolent beings due to our cultural associations with the species. (Illustration by Priya Kuriyan)

About two months ago, WhatsApp groups in Kodaikanal were abuzz with news of elephants at Moir Point, a popular tourist spot in the Tamil Nadu hill station. Moir Point is known for its sweeping views of the hills, blanketed in green and wreathed in clouds, but on that sunny morning, photographs told a remarkably different story.

Instead of misty mountains and smiling faces, there were shanty shops in various states of ruin. Tin sheets lay on the floor, amidst a mess of disposable plates, plastic bags, jerry cans, oil tins, and large piles of fresh elephant dung. Photographs of the visitors followed: a tusker amidst wild vegetation, trunk raised in the air, pupils like tiny pinpricks. Another showed an elephant with its ears extended and its immense body partly covered with green. “Matter of time before they decide to pay a visit to Kodi,” a member of the WhatsApp group commented. “Headed to the bus stop!” someone else warned. “Soon a false TV news (report) will appear saying that these elephants attacked humans, oblivious of the fact that we are living in a wildlife sanctuary.”

The response was understandable. Kodaikanal is known for its population of gaur but elephants are rarely, if ever, seen in the hill station town owing to its high elevation. The mega herbivores are more common in the middle and lower elevations of the Palani Hills, up to 1,700m above sea level. Kodaikanal is perched at 2,100m—a good 400m higher—and quite different in terms of landscape and habitat. Was the elephant visit a one-off, or would the town see more of them in the future? What would this mean for the town’s residents and tourists?

Things are significantly different where I live, about a half-hour drive away.

In the lush valley between the villages of Pethuparai and Ganeshpuram, located at around 1,000m above sea level, everybody has an elephant story. In two-and-a-half years of living here, I have heard trumpets sound at all hours of the day and night, encountered more elephant poop than I can compost, and seen enough elephant videos to consider making a documentary film.

Some of the stories are magical: Friends Josephine and Vaibhav Vaidya, who live in Bharati Annanagar (the next village), told me about how they spent the minutes before midnight, on New Year’s Eve, watching an elephant feed on wild trees outside their home, bathed in moonlight, every bristle on its head glowing like silver. Other tales are more sobering, like the story of my neighbours Mary and J. Lawrence, who woke up to find their storeroom raided by elephants, and the road outside their home strewn with white rice. Or the time a neighbour planted 96 banana trees, only to have them all cleared by elephants a few nights later.

The common thread between these stories is the food. Elephants spend up to 19 hours a day feeding and need vast quantities of vegetation to sustain their hefty selves. On average, an adult elephant consumes at least 100kg of food every day; humans, on the other hand, eat a little over 1kg. According to World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) India, the bulk of an elephant’s diet comprises grasses, tree bark, roots, leaves and stems, but cultivated foods such as bananas, rice and sugar cane have become commonplace in recent years. In addition to greens, elephants also need plenty of water, which makes certain habitats more valuable to them.

“Since time immemorial, humans have been the predators of elephants,” says wildlife biologist N. Lakshminarayanan, thereby puncturing my romantic notions of a past when humans lived in peaceful coexistence with these gentle giants. Lakshminarayanan, who has been studying elephants since 2008, currently works with the Wildlife Institute of India as project associate in the department of endangered species management. His core area of interest is elephants. “During prehistoric times, humans used to kill them, and ever since we started cultivating crops, we have been in direct competition with elephants, because we like to cultivate in floodplains where there is good water and irrigation, and that’s precisely what elephants want.”

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This explains why the valleys of Pethuparai, Bharti Annanagar, Ganeshpuram and Pallangi-Kombai, and the areas around Berijam and Kookal Lake, see greater elephant activity than other areas in the Palani Hills; there is more water and diversity of vegetation in these parts. Instead of eucalyptus and pine, these hillsides have bamboo groves, amla and kadukai trees, bushes of wild lemongrass and citronella, tiny ferns and sprawling ficus that buzz, click and drone with life. In the folds between the hills, the magnificent shola forest that is native to the hills of south India flourishes. These patches of indigenous vegetation are home to a staggering variety of life, from mouse deer and endangered Malabar flying squirrels to leopards and mega herbivores like bison and elephants.

According to a study conducted by the Union government in 2017, Tamil Nadu has 2,761 elephants (the fourth-largest population in India); Kodaikanal is listed as having 19 of them. But that was four years ago, and I wondered how many elephants we share space with now.

So I made a trip to the forest office in Kodaikanal to meet the district forest officer, P.K. Dileep. According to him, initially the Palani Hills landscape was primarily used as a corridor by the elephants, during their migration from Munnar in Kerala to Meghamalai, near Theni in Tamil Nadu. “Sometime in the late 1980s, wildlife resorts around Berijam Lake started to bait elephants with large piles of food, for tourists,” he says. “This went on until 2010, when the forest department put an end to the activity, but by then, the elephants had identified this area as a place with food.”

Even now, he says, “Kodaikanal Sanctuary has no permanent-resident elephants but is part of the range of some herds, so elephants do move around this region, but their numbers are not as high as, say, in Gudalur (near Ooty in the Nilgiris), where there are about 150-200 elephants at any point in time.” In Kodaikanal, he says, “there are maybe five-six elephants at any given time”.

Pudupandey, an Adivasi resident of Bharati Annanagar, feels elephant activity has increased in the last 10-15 years. “Earlier, we would see elephants only when we went to gather honey, or harvest eenji maar,” he says, referring to a local variety of palm whose leaves are used to make brooms. “They kept to the forest and we would see them in herds, with their young. They would be minding their business and we would be doing our own work. There was no fear.”

Pudupandey belongs to the Palaiyar tribe, the original inhabitants of the Palani Hills. Like many indigenous communities, their relationship with their habitat has deep roots, even though they have been relocated out of forest lands by the government. As the Palaiyar writer Murugeswari says: “They respect and worship the high ranges, the tall shola trees, the rivulets and waterfalls, as they would their ancestors and their gods. They are very particular that no harm comes to the sholas and to the animals and birds living in them.”

Pudupandey says the relationship between humans and elephants has changed significantly over the years. “Now they come to patta land,” he says, referring to settlements. “There is a lot of fear now, a lot of anger between elephants and humans. We have created so many threats: firecrackers, electric fencing, trenches, chilli-powder bombs, and we have taken so much of the forest, so their anger is understandable.” When I ask if there is any way to make amends, Pudupandey shrugs. “Maybe we can make the situation better but I doubt we can go back to how things were,” he says.

On the drive back home, I soberly soak in the views of the Palani Hills—a patchwork of forest, grassland and exposed rock—and I am reminded that these mountains are among the oldest in the world, pre-dating the Himalaya, dating back to the Gondwana era, when most of the landmass on Earth belonged to one supercontinent. Elephants have been here for 55 million years. Homo sapiens, in contrast, are only 200,000 years old—younglings in comparison to these ancient creatures, and younger still compared to these hills.

*****

I seek out other theories about elephant movements. From Singaravelan, a farmer who lives in Pethuparai, I learn that the elephants visit largely during the dry months, between February-June, “sometimes once a week, and sometimes every day of the week”. Their motivations are either food or passage.

Singaravelan’s family has an acre of land on which it grows beans, chow-chow and potatoes in rotation, and another acre where it keeps cows and grows a mix of orange, banana and coffee. “Elephants don’t eat beans and chow-chow but if they don’t have a path to get from one side to the other, they will break a fence to pass through,” he says.

Growing bananas, he says, are a sure-fire way to catch an elephant’s attention. “Besides, farmers use a mix of urea, salt and potash as fertiliser and this attracts the elephants,” he says. “They like the smell, and they come to eat it. Many times, when the elephants break into peoples’ storerooms, they come to eat either rice or this mixture.”

Kishore Cariappa, a resident of the Vellaparai and Anjuramanmandi areas, attributes the increase in elephant activity to a reduction in forest cover, increase in agriculture, and land that has been left to its own devices. “In this area in particular, there are lots of abandoned plantations and lots of small-scale farmers who have started growing bananas, which is a favourite with elephants.” Earlier, he says, the elephants would come and go, now they are more of a permanent feature.

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Cariappa has 10 acres of land by a river, with no motorable road access. He sees plenty of elephant activity, presumably because of the relative isolation of the land and proximity to a freshwater source. He tells me about watching elephants expertly using their trunks to pluck ripe jackfruit from trees, and sitting around a bonfire with a large tusker less than 20m away. “So this whole thing about elephants staying away from fire,” he says, chuckling, “this has not been my experience.”

Living alongside these mega herbivores requires some sacrifices. “For instance, I don’t come home after 6pm. If I have an evening function in Kodaikanal, I stay in town, and return the next morning. I know they move around after dark and I would prefer not to disturb them.”

Over the years, Cariappa has developed his own approach to coexistence. “Initially, I was against solar fencing and the elephants would walk through my property but the damage was by default, because they are such large creatures,” he says. After much thought, Cariappa solar-fenced about a third of his property so that the house and his core coffee crop would be secure. “The elephants are free to use the rest of the land,” he says, “and so far, it has worked.”

*****

Those who are more vulnerable to economic loss depend on compensation schemes from the forest department but this comes with its own complications. When a farmer suffers crop damage from wildlife, he or she first lodges a complaint with the forest department; a range officer visits to verify the claim. Next, the farmer must get an appointment with a member of the agricultural department, who also visits, to estimate the extent of damage to the crop and award a compensation certificate. Once these formalities have been completed, the compensation is finally credited to his or her account.

In most situations, the farmers do not apply at all, for the compensation can only be availed by those who have proper papers for the land. “The forest department provides compensation for patta land only,” explains Singaravelan, but most growers work with leased land, or a category of land-use called “B-Memo”, which cannot legally be used for growing vegetables. “In the larger Kodaikanal area, 80% of people do not have patta. Mostly it is B-Memo and other land that is not pukka.”

The procedure for compensation is more arduous for families that have lost a member due to encounters with elephants. There is the emotional toll as well as the economics to consider, as these are often earning members of the family. I asked the forest department about the number of deaths caused by elephants in the Palani Hills—I did not receive an answer but conversations with friends and acquaintances indicate there are occasional fatalities.

“Our biggest priority is to avoid loss of precious human life,” says Dileep, the district forest officer, “but we are also concerned for the economic losses as well as the needs of the elephants.”

Striking this balance can be a delicate task, especially in a world constantly bombarded with fatiguing news about the environment. Every morning, I wake up to news about natural ecosystems being cleared for mining, highways or dams, and when I walk around the valley where I live, I see more change. More patches of tree cover being cleared for vegetable farms; more life-sustaining soil being flattened by JCBs to make concrete roads; more plastic bags littering the streets. I try to remember that each of these problems—plastic, pesticide, concrete—was a solution at some point. “It is not an easy life, living alongside animals like elephants,” Dileep reminds me. “One visit, and your entire crop is gone.”

*****

It’s not easy being an elephant either. As Laxminarayanan reminds me, crop-raiding comes at a cost for the animals too. “Elephants know that attacking a banana plantation is risky,” he says. “Some of them are prepared to take the risk, very few of them actually do, but invariably, this is what happens when their habitat is put under stress.”

Which brings us to the state of our shola forests. If one were to examine the forest cover in the Palani Hills over the last 50 years, it would seem not much has changed. “What has changed is the quality of the habitat,” explains Lakshminarayanan. “If the habitat is good, and elephants have the resources they need, their home range can be as small as 100 sq. km. Like in Assam’s Kaziranga, which is a floodplain, so year-round there is water and vegetation growth. But in drier habitats with fewer resources, an elephant’s range can be as large as 1,500 sq. km.”

Home range, the area frequently used by an animal in search of food or mates, varies according to the resources available. For context, the Kodaikanal Wildlife Sanctuary covers an area of 609 sq. km, which isn’t that much in the world of elephants. “When you are talking about animals like elephants, we cannot consider any habitat in isolation because their home ranges are large enough to encompass many ecosystems,” explains Lakshminarayanan. “Their usage will change with season, rainfall, temperature, all of which impact the food that is available. Large-bodied animals like elephants move larger distances so they end up covering a large area, and that’s what is called a home range.”

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Precise data pertaining to shola cover and the number of elephants is hard to estimate as no recent studies appear to have been conducted. What we do know is that the greater the degree of change in the environment, the greater the change in elephant movements. For example, if a patch of sholas is lost, the elephants who include that area in their home range will be affected. “As a result, some of the elephants might start moving in some other areas, creating a conflict,” says Lakshminarayanan. “If the river is lost, then it is a colossal loss for the entire population. So there is direct loss to consider and indirect loss to consider.”

*****

Despite the potential damage, most people are still excited about seeing elephants. Once, while driving home from Kodaikanal, my partner and I spotted a small group from the village, gesticulating to the opposite hillside: “Yanai!” someone helpfully informed us, so we stopped and waited for the scene to unfold. When the elephant moved into sight, about 100m away, there was a collective gasp. “Chellakutty (little darling),” one of the ladies called, a big, beaming smile on her face.

Our relationship with elephants is fascinating. Their size inspires a degree of fear but they are also seen as benevolent beings due to our cultural associations with the species. “In the presence of elephants, there is always anxiety, there is always also attraction, which is a strange combination,” says Lakshminarayanan. “The more time you spend with them, the more the anxiety reduces. You start to see them as individuals, so you know who can be troublesome and who can be approached. Then, they are wonderful creatures to understand because they are very similar to people in many ways.”

It brought to mind my own close encounter with an elephant, this April. It was around 2am. I was sound asleep until I heard my dog Miko bark sharply. Assuming she needed to pee, I leashed her and opened the main door, only to see a large, male elephant less than 10ft from where I stood. If I put my hand out, I might have touched his tusks.

Each elephant has a different personality.
Each elephant has a different personality. (Illustration by Priya Kuriyan)

My memory of that encounter is very hazy. I don’t remember looking the elephant in the eye, or whether his head touched the ceiling of the porch. Truthfully, if I didn’t have a friend staying in the guest room that night, I might have wondered if I had imagined the whole thing. Luckily, my friend Dhruv was only a few feet away. Unluckily for us, the elephant’s massive head was in the way.

Wordlessly, we both took a few steps back, me into the house and Dhruv into the guest room, and closed our doors. I switched off the lights outside, put my dog in the bedroom, and tried to gauge the elephant’s movements through the peephole (an exercise in futility, in case you are wondering). A few minutes later, I opened the door a crack to see the elephant’s ample, grey behind gracefully make its way past the tomato trellis, through a wire mesh fence, and out of my vegetable garden. His footsteps made barely a whisper.

The next morning, I walked around the garden. An old hammock had been ripped, the vermicompost bucket reduced to triangular pieces of plastic, and the edge of one veggie bed had broken—but save for this relatively minor damage, my very crowded vegetable garden was intact. The tomatoes were untouched, as were the beans, tapioca, parsley, and everything else. I was awestruck. How could a creature that large walk around my human-sized garden without decimating it? Did he actually step over the beds to avoid damaging them? Was that even possible for an animal of his size?

I had no answers, just a warm fuzzy feeling that defied articulation.

*****

“When we talk of conflict and coexistence, with any animal, and especially elephants, it is valuable to first define the term ‘conflict’,” explains Lakshminarayanan.

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“Complete resolution is not possible in any situation, so you quantify it. For me, conflict might be loss of human life, for you conflict might be seeing an elephant. For some others, worrying about elephants is also considered conflict. So the first step is to understand what kind of conflict is being discussed.”

For a small-scale farmer like Singaravelan, conflict means economic loss due to elephants, which he minimised with proper solar-electric fencing. “The elephants know whether the electric fence is working or not,” says Singaravelan. “We see them on CCTV cameras. They put their trunks close to the fence and sense the voltage.”

Singaravelan has lived in the valley all his life and believes each elephant has a different personality. “There was one elephant, quite small, not very tall, with a problem leg, but it would break even the powerful electric fencing,” says Singaravelan, who also erects and maintains solar fences for quite a few properties. “If he came, he would eat everything, but there is a male elephant around Pethuparai, very gentle, he follows his path, people take videos and all, but he doesn’t give any trouble.”

*****

That evening, I Rubik’s-cube these questions of coexistence while I watch the mist move in and out of the valley, over forest, banana plantations and farms. Is it possible to live alongside elephants? What does the future look like for Pethuparai? What does it look like for the elephants? What would it take to work at this together, as a community?

As I ruminate, I realise that these questions might not have definitive answers at all. What works in Pethuparai might not work in Poombarai, and even within Pethuparai, what works for a backyard gardener like me might not work for a full-time farmer like Singaravelan. No two situations are the same, and all parties involved are constantly changing: us, the elephants, and our shared habitat. Like all relationships, I understand that living alongside elephants will require work, and the willingness to keep our hearts and minds open to all possibilities. Parts of it will come with heartache, parts of it might require serious compromise, but parts of it could be pretty wonderful too.

Published in collaboration with The Kodai Chronicle

Neha Sumitran is a Kodaikanal-based writer and food editor of The Kodai Chronicle. Her Instagram is @nehasumitran.

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  • FIRST PUBLISHED
    03.12.2021 | 03:58 PM IST

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