COIMBATORE: A herd of wild elephants waits patiently along the Dindigul-Mysuru National Highways (NH). Their wait prolongs and traffic gets disrupted on the busy NH, but the elephants are determined to stay put.
Suddenly, as if they have found their feast for the day, one among the elephants intercepts a carrier van and drags down a load of sack to search it. It’s finally a disappointment.
The elephants couldn’t find their favourite sugarcane and it was just loads of sweet potatoes (sakkaravalli kilangu). One among the elephants, found to be visibly irritated, smashes the front glass window panes of the vehicle, even as the driver jumps out and makes a narrow escape.
The apparently hungry elephants devour those sweet potatoes, albeit unwillingly before retreating into the forests without finding any lorries laden with sugarcane after an hour’s wait on the NH on last Sunday evening (June 19).
This is not one off incident. Elephants from Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve (STR) frequenting the NH keep looking for lorries transporting sugarcane from Talavadi and Chamarajanagar in Karnataka to sugar mills in Bhavani Taluk.
It has become a routine affair. In one of the latest incidents, an irate elephant attacked a car as its long wait for cane proved futile.
On some occasions, the elephants are lucky too, as they come across a sugarcane-laden lorry soon after their arrival to the NH as it happened on this Friday evening (June 24).
A lone elephant singled out the lorry arriving with sugarcane loads and blocked it on the NH. Having had enough of its diet, the elephant calmly retreated into the forests, after which the lorry moved from the spot.
Curiously, the elephants got a taste of sugarcane last year during the harvest season, when a few vehicles laden with cane were halted on this stretch of the NH due to some snag.
Since then, the elephants couldn’t resist their temptation and began to turn up on the NH looking for lorries to arrive with cane. Incidents of their interceptions have increased now, with the start of the migratory season and ongoing sugarcane harvests.
With this problem turning more acute and threatening with the possibility of becoming a major conflict in waiting, the Forest Department is now mulling over setting different time patterns for vehicles carrying sugarcane to go by the NH.
Devendra Kumar Meena, District Forest Officer (DFO), Hassanur Division said, if the lorries laden with sugarcane come in the morning for a week, it should be afternoon next week and evening thereafter.
“Indeed, elephants too are smart and they too might change their timings, if lorries do not come in their expected time for a prolonged period. Our strategy should also be changed then,” he said.
“There are two groups of elephant herds and two single tuskers, all from Bandipur Tiger Reserve (BTR), which are habituated to follow vehicles with sugarcane. Their interceptions are more in BTR and rarely do they come to Karapallam forest check post at Hasanur,” said Meena.
Untill a decade ago sighting a sloth bear near residential areas in the high-altitude Nilgiris was a rarity. But, with every passing year, their sightings are becoming more common, even in busy town areas across the hills.
“The sloths are enticed by the garbage — mainly comprising bakery snacks and leftover food items from hotels, dumped along the forest fringes. They develop a strong liking for the salt and sweet content in the leftover bakery items and tend to gradually lose their preference for natural food,” said N Sadiq Ali, founder and trustee of Wildlife and Nature Conservation Trust (WNCT).
An adult sloth bear with its two cubs perched on its back wanders around the compost yard of ‘valam meetpu poonga’ over the recent days in Kotagiri in search of food.
The only solution to sloth bear intrusions lies in taking up proper waste management, say conservationists.
“The hotels and bakeries should be restricted from dumping their waste food items near forest areas. If the bears couldn’t find leftover food from garbage for a week, then they eventually may stop coming,” Sadiq Ali added.
Whenever left without food, the sloth bears seem to have found smarter ways to fill up their stomach. Incidents of them, breaking into houses and schools in search of dry rations during the night has become rampant in recent days.
It was for the third time in a few months on last Thursday night that a sloth bear broke into the noon meal centre of a government-aided school in Coonoor and devoured the rations.
Just a few days before this incident, two families woke up terrorised as a sloth bear broke into their houses, made its way into the kitchen and consumed food items in the Manjur area.
Their frequent intrusion is also leading to some problematic interactions in the residential neighbourhoods. A 63-year-old ‘Irula’ tribal from Kudakur hamlet in Kengarai near Kotagiri suffered injuries in an attack by a sloth bear near his house on June 24 morning.
The villagers chased away the animal and the elderly man is still under treatment at Coimbatore Medical College and Hospital (CMCH).
Though Forest Minister K Ramachandran recently suggested capturing problematic sloth bears, wildlife activists argued that the problem does not end with their capture. K Saravanakumar, Assistant Conservator of Forests (Nilgiris division) too said that sloth bear intrusions, which were previously restricted to specific fruit-bearing seasons, have become more common now in the hills.
“Their intrusions are more in regions, where garbage generated isn’t disposed of properly. We are creating awareness, particularly with residential schools and hotels on proper waste management. While there are no issues with municipalities, some village panchayats found lagging in waste management were also advised to adhere to norms. There was a visible drop in the arrival of sloth bears when the garbage issue was addressed in some hotspots,” he said.
The official also said an increase in the population of sloth bears to be another reason for their frequent movement.