This is the first story in a series of articles on the Western Ghats—covering everything from elusive frogs to majestic birds to hidden ancient forests.
Valparai is a little town at the heart of the Valparai plateau in the Anamalai Hills. Spread over 220sq.km. Dominated by tea and coffee plantations and surrounded by Protected Areas on all sides, the plateau has a population of approx. 70,000 people, whose livelihood depends on these plantations. Home to diverse and endemic species of flora and fauna, Valparai and the forests surrounding it in the Western Ghats are recognised globally as a biodiversity hotspot.
Just about a hundred years ago, the Valparai landscape was entirely different. In 1890, the British government that ruled India decided to open up this landscape to promote plantations. The undulating terrain seemed ideal for growing coffee and tea, and thus began the clearing of large tracts of pristine rainforests for plantation agriculture. At the time, the only humans present in these dense forests of the Anamalais were the few indigenous communities of Kadar, Muthuvar and Malai Malasar, who were primarily nomadic hunter-gatherers and shifting cultivators.
For the ease of management, certain difficult-to-cultivate tracts of land were left untouched while the rest was converted to coffee and tea plantations, thus fragmenting the once continuous forests of Valparai.
The Shared Land
Valparai is home to the tiger, leopard, bear, elephant, Dhole, Purple Frog, Lion-tailed Macaque and hornbills, among other species. These hills, called the Anamalais, translate to ‘Elephant Hills’ and are home to the second-largest contiguous elephant population across their range in Asia.
As the plantations were set up, people were brought in from different parts of the state to work. The tracks made in the forest from repeated use by elephants and other animals were now cleared and widened to make way for roads. Thus began the earliest interaction between people and wildlife.
Elephants are generally found in herds, with the older elephants playing a vital role in making decisions such as selecting movement routes, providing security for the young and imparting the knowledge they have gained from their ancestors.
The males are solitary but also visit the herds from time to time or form temporary associations with other males of the plateau. Having monitored elephant behaviour and their usage of plantations for over a decade now, we estimate about 140 elephants access these areas for over eight months a year, with September to April being the peak season for elephant activity.
A major part of the human population resides within the tea and coffee plantations that are owned by national and multinational companies. The people residing in the estates depend on firewood from the forest fragments closest to their homes, which are frequented by elephants.
In this landscape, the location of houses, places of worship, factories, roads, bus stops, shops and ration shops that store and distribute food supplies, were not planned keeping elephant movement in mind. This forces the elephants to navigate through vast areas of tea plantations on winding roads, passing through human-use areas, to reach the nearest fragment of forest. The fragmentation of forests, unplanned structural development and the dependence of people for natural resources have made it inevitable that people and elephants interact with one another.
Some interactions are peaceful as people enjoy watching wildlife. There are other instances where a mob gathers and tries to drive or chase the elephant, which could lead to fatal encounters. As the distance between forest fragments is not uniform, there are numerous occasions when elephants are forced to spend time resting within the tea estates.
As most of the estate work happens during the day, elephants have little choice but to move at night. Ration shops are set up close to residential colonies to facilitate ease of supply, but this poses a significant threat as elephants are attracted to the smell of rice, lentils, sugar etc. stored in these centres. Elephants break into these stores and the kitchens of neighbouring houses in an attempt to access the food, causing a great deal of stress and fear.
Most fatal encounters occur when people are unaware of elephant presence in their locality. Activities such as firewood collection from the nearest forest fragment, midnight visits to outdoor toilets, walking along trails or taking shortcuts, inebriation or unplanned driving of elephants often lead to unexpected encounters.
Early Warning Systems
Between 1994–2021, 48 people have lost their lives to encounters with elephants, with an average of three people per year between 1994–2002. Monitoring of elephants and human-elephant conflict began in 2002. Based on the study carried out by researchers at Nature Conservation Foundation, over 70 per cent of the people lost their lives to elephants due to unexpected or accidental encounters.
This led to the concept of alerting estate workers in advance to reduce accidental encounters with elephants. NCF used the local cable TV channel, which had over 25,000 subscribers, to broadcast information about elephant locations. After 2011, once mobile network coverage improved, text messaging started to be utilised to alert residents of elephant presence, and a hotline was set up for them to reach out for help.
In the same year, elephant alert indicators were installed at vantage points to warn travellers about elephant presence in the region. The concept was simple—share elephant locations with residents and the forest department so that people could avoid encounters with elephants, and the forest department could use the information to position themselves in advance to prevent damages to properties.
In 2012, the Tamil Nadu Forest Department set up a dedicated team equipped with specialised vehicles to address the human-elephant conflict in Valparai. This approach led to a decline in human deaths. Additionally, the number of damages dropped from 150 in 2011 to less than 90 and has remained consistent over the years. 2020 saw one of the lowest occurrences of property damage in Valparai, at 64 incidents. The average number of human deaths dropped from three people per year in 2002 to less than one person by 2021.
The tracking of elephants and communication of the same to estate management, the forest department, residents, driver unions and the media created a network where information was being efficiently shared. This network brought together different stakeholders and helped in formulating plans to manage conflict situations better. By changing certain practices, the peaceful movement of elephants was facilitated and the safety of plantation workers was ensured. This has created a sense of security and tolerance towards elephants and has helped promote co-existence in places such as Valparai, where people and animals have no other option but to share resources and space.
Watch the mini-documentary on the elephants of the Anamalais here: