About a month ago, WhatsApp groups in Kodaikanal were abuzz with news of elephants at Moir Point, a popular tourist spot in the hill station, a few kilometres from Observatory Road. Moir Point is generally known for its views of the hills, blanketed in green and wreathed in clouds, but on the sunny morning of 25 September, photos from the location 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, jerrycans, oil tins and large piles of fresh elephant dung. Photos 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 on account of its high elevation. The megaherbivores are more common in the middle and lower elevations of the Palani Hills, up to 1700 metres above sea level. Kodaikanal is perched at 2100 metres—a good 400 metres higher—and quite different in terms of landscape and habitat. Was the visit a one-off for the elephants, or would the town see more of them in the future? What would this mean for Kodai’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 1000 metres and a few kilometres from Perumalmalai Forest Check Post, everybody has an elephant story. In two and a half years of living here, I’ve 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 a documentary film. Some stories are magical: friends Josephine and Vaibhav Vaidya, who live in Bharati Annanagar (the next village from ours), once told me about how they spent the minutes before midnight one 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 on his unused piece of land, only to have it cleared by elephants a few nights later. I didn’t see the visitors in action, but I remember waking up in the wee hours of the morning on a new moon night, to hear something unfamiliar: a gentle whooshing and munching that I later realised was the sound of elephants systematically making their way through the field. The next morning, there wasn’t a sapling in sight.
Eats Shoots and Leaves
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 over 100kg of food every day; humans, on the other hand, eat a little over 1 kilo. According to 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 also become commonplace in recent years. They 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 Dr Lakshminarayanan, thereby puncturing my romantic notions of a past when humans lived in peaceful coexistence with these gentle giants. Dr Lakshminarayanan has been studying elephants since 2008, and 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.’
This explains why the valleys of Pethuparai, Bharati Annanagar, Ganeshpuram and Pallangi-Kombai, and the areas around Berijam and Kookal Lake, have a higher incidence of elephant activity than other areas in the Palani Hills; there is more water in these parts and more diversity of vegetation. 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 flourish. These patches of indigenous vegetation are home to a staggering variety of life, from endangered Malabar flying squirrels and tiny spiders no larger than a fingernail to leopards and megaherbivores like bison and elephants.
According to a study conducted by the Indian government in 2017, Tamil Nadu has 2761 elephants (the fourth-largest population in India), and Kodaikanal is listed to have 19 of them. But that was four years ago, and I wondered how many elephants we shared space with now. I had casually been asking friends and neighbours in the area, and the estimates varied wildly from ‘four or five’ to ‘maybe a dozen or so?’ to ‘Oh, there are hundreds of them!’
As someone who planned to live the rest of her years in the Palani Hills, I wondered what the future of human-elephant relationships might look like. So I made a trip to the Forest Office in Kodaikanal, near Anna Salai Road, to meet District Forest Officer P.K. Dileep. As I waited for my interview, I soaked in the atmosphere: slanted wooden roof, Enid Blyton windows, Godrej cupboards with painted signs that say ‘Anti-poaching Camp and Training under WGDP from 2001–02’. All in all, the kind of old-school structure that reminds me that Kodaikanal has been around for centuries, and has been inhabited since the 1800s. I wondered whether the elephants have been using these hills for as long.
From the DFO, I learned that the Palani Hills landscape was primarily used as a corridor by the elephants during their migration from the hill stations of Munnar in Kerala to Meghamalai, near Theni in Tamil Nadu. ‘Sometime in the late ’80s, wildlife resorts around Berijam Lake started to bait elephants with large piles of food, for tourists visiting the area,’ Dileep 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.’
‘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, where there are about 150–200 elephants at any given point in time.’ In Kodaikanal, he says, ‘There are maybe 5–6 elephants at any given time.’
The Adivasi Perspective
Pudupandey, an Adivasi resident of Bharati Annanagar, feels that 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, referencing a local variety of palm, the leaves of which are used to make brooms. ‘They kept to the forest, and we would see them in herds, with their young eating and playing when we went foraging. 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 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 [meaning that they frequently visit settlements]. There is a lot of fear now, a lot of anger between elephants and humans. We have created so many threats for them—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.’
On the drive back home, I soberly soak in 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, predating the Himalayas and going back to the Gondwana era, when most landmasses on Earth belonged to one supercontinent. Elephants, I remember reading, 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.
Seen and Herd
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 and June, ‘sometimes once a week and sometimes every day of the week’. Their motivations are either food or passage through the landscape.
Singaravelan’s family has an acre of land where they grow a rotation of beans, chow chow and potatoes, and another acre where they keep cows and grow a mix of oranges, bananas and coffee. ‘Elephants don’t eat beans and chow chow,’ he says, “but if they don’t have a path to get from one side to the other, they will break a fence to pass through.’
According to him, growing bananas is 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. So many times, when the elephants break into peoples’ store houses, they come to eat either rice or this mixture.’ If an elephant eats too much of this fertiliser, it gets diarrhoea, but still, it is attracted to it. ‘It’s the salt,’ Singaravelan says.
Kishore Cariappa, a resident of the Vellaparai and Anjuramanmandi areas, attributes the increase in elephant activity to the reduction in forest cover, increase in agriculture and land without use. ‘In this area in particular, there are lots of abandoned plantations that have been left to their own devices for a long time, and lots of small-scale farmers who have started growing bananas specifically, which is a favourite of elephants.’ Earlier, he says, the elephants would come and go, but now they are more of a permanent feature.
Cariappa has ten acres of land on either side of a river, with no motorable road access. He sees plenty of elephant activity, presumably because of the relative isolation of his land and its proximity to a freshwater source. His sightings are the stuff of storybooks. He tells me about watching elephants expertly using their trunks to pluck ripe jackfruit from trees, seeing them spray mud on their ample backs to keep cool, and sitting around a bonfire with a large tusker less than 20 metres away. ‘So this whole thing about elephants staying away from fire,’ he says, chuckling, ‘has not been my experience.’
That being said, living alongside these megaherbivores 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 really against solar fencing, and the elephants would walk through my property, but the damage was by default because they are such large creatures. But at some point, all the neighbours electric-fenced their land, and that’s when the damage increased.’ 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.’
He acknowledges that his approach is a product of privilege and cannot be embraced by farmers who are entirely dependent on their yield for economic survival. ‘I am somewhere between these large estates and small holdings, so I am trying to find my middle path.’
Those that 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 makes a complaint with the Forest Department, following which the farm is visited by a range officer 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 the damage caused to the crop and award a compensation certificate. Once these formalities have been completed, the compensation is finally credited to the farmer’s account.
In most situations, though, 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. Most growers work with leased land or a category of land-use called ‘B-Memo’, which cannot legally be used for the purposes of 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 to procure compensation is even more arduous for families that have lost a member due to fatal encounters with elephants. There is the emotional toll of these experiences 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 area. I did not receive an answer, but conversations with friends and acquaintances indicate that 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 suffered by locals, as well as the needs of the elephants. With inputs from locals and conservationists, and our own efforts, we are trying to direct the movements of the elephants in such a way as to avoid this kind of loss.’
Striking this balance can be a delicate task, especially in a world that is constantly bombarded with fatiguing information about the environment. Every morning I wake up to news about natural ecosystems being cleared for mining or highways or dams, and when I walk around the valley where I live, I see evidence of this sentiment. 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. It can be quite disconcerting, more so when I acknowledge my own contributions, but in these moments, I try to remember that each of these problems—the plastic, pesticide, concrete—was a solution at some point. Everything changes, and the best we can do is be open to understanding the current situation from all perspectives. ‘It is not an easy life, living alongside animals like elephants,’ the DFO reminds me. ‘One visit, and your entire crop is gone.’
The Elephant in the Room
It’s not an easy life being an elephant either.
As Dr Lakshminarayanan 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. So the trigger is the habitat.’
Which brings us to the state of our indigeneous shola forests. If one were to examine the forest cover in the Palani Hills over the last 50 years, it would seem like not much has changed. ‘What has changed is the quality of the habitat,’ explains Dr Lakshminarayanan. ‘If the habitat is good and elephants have the resources they need, their home range can be as small as 100 square kilometres. 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 square kilometres.’
Home range refers to an area that is frequently used by an animal in search of food or mates, and varies according to the resources available in the area. For context, Kodaikanal Wildlife Sanctuary covers an area of 609 square kilometres, which isn’t that much in the world of elephants. ‘When you’re talking about animals like elephants, we cannot consider any habitat in isolation, because their home ranges are large enough to encompass many ecosystems,’ explains Dr 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.’
Precise data pertaining to shola cover and the numbers 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 the elephants’ movements. For example, if a patch of sholas is lost, then the elephants that include that area in their home range will be affected. ‘As a result, some of the elephants might start moving in other areas, creating a conflict in the new area,’ says Dr Lakshminarayanan. But there are also habitats, such as rivers, that are used by many elephants. ‘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.’
Culture and Conservation
Despite the potential damages involved with having elephants around, most people are still excited about seeing them, as long as they are a secure distance away. Once, while driving home from Kodaikanal, my partner and I spotted a small group of people 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 100 metres away, there was a collective gasp. ‘Chellakutty [little darling],’ one of the ladies called in a sing-song voice, a big, beaming smile on her face.
Our relationship with elephants is fascinating. They inspire a degree of fear and awe in most of us, but elephants are also seen as benevolent beings due to our cultural associations with the species. ‘For the Indian, the elephant goes back to the story of the cosmic churning,’ writes Anita Nair, in an essay called ‘A for Aana’, the Malayalam word for elephant. ‘As the Gods and the demons churned the oceans seeking the elixir of life that would make them immortal, it is said that before the elixir came the navratnas (nine jewels) to the surface. One of these jewels was the elephant.’
Many wildlife conservationists believe that these associations play a significant role in the average Indian’s approach to conservation. Somewhere deep in our psyches, we think of elephants as more than just large pachyderms. Many see them as intelligent beings, creatures of family, sometimes benevolent, sometimes brutal, and complex, just like us.
‘In the presence of elephants, there is always anxiety. There is also attraction, which is a strange combination,’ says Dr Lakshminarayanan. ‘The more time you spend with them, the more the anxiety reduces. You start to see them as different 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. By that time, I had been living in Pethuparai for two years, and was fairly settled into my routine in the hills. I knew we had elephants around, and I had seen fleeting glimpses of them, but truth be told, I was a little forlorn not to have a proper elephant story of my own. Everybody else did. On the flip side, as an avid vegetable gardener, I was also grateful that my backyard had remained off their radar. Too little to eat, I suspected, especially when nearby plantations were full of jackfruit, custard apple, and other fruitful bounty. But back to the story.
Stranger in the Night
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 door to my house to see a large male elephant less than 10 feet from where I stood. If I put my hand out, I might have touched his tusks.
My memory of that encounter is very hazy. For instance, I don’t remember whether my dog was barking or not. Nor do I remember looking the elephant in the eye, or whether his head touched the ceiling of the porch of my house. Truthfully, if I didn’t have a friend staying in the guest room that night, I might have wondered if I 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 in my door (an exercise in futility, in case you’re 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 to study the scene. An old hammock was 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 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.
Keepers of the Forest
Dr Lakshminarayanan equates the presence of elephants with resilience in the environment, especially in times of climate change. ‘If elephants are around, it means that the forest ecosystem is somewhat intact, so if any disturbance happens, in the form of cyclones, drought, etc, the probability of the habitat returning to the previous state is high. They are like the fuel indicator in a car, but for the environment.’
Long story short: As long as we have elephants amongst us, we can be assured that our ecosystem is relatively healthy. But the question remains—just how do we learn to live alongside them in a way that doesn’t jeopardise either our lives or theirs?
‘When we talk of conflict and coexistence with any animal, and especially elephants, it is valuable to first define the term “conflict”,’ explains Dr Lakshminarayan. ‘Complete resolution is not possible in any situation, so you quantify it. For me, conflict might be the 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, fellow resident of Pethuparai, conflict means economic loss due to elephants, which he minimises with proper fencing. ‘Most people put up solar-electric fencing without understanding the importance of earthing,’ he says. ‘They drive small posts into the ground, about half a foot, but they need to be buried at least 5 feet into the ground and surrounded by materials like charcoal, salt and sand to provide proper earthing for the fence.’
Singaravelan is a man of many talents. In addition to helping his family with farming, he also works in the nearby Sholai School, where he does solar fencing. ‘The elephants know whether the electric fence is working or not,’ he says. ‘We see them on CCTV cameras that have been installed in Sholai. They put their trunks close to the fence and sense the voltage, maybe listen for the tik-tik sound that the fence makes. They know.’
During the rainy season, explains Singaravelan, the moisture in the ground works in favour of the earthing abilities of electric fences—another reason he thinks the elephants don’t visit as much during wetter times. So ensuring that proper voltage is flowing is the number one thing with fences. The other is constant maintenance: the vicinity of the fence needs to be cleared of all vegetation. If you’ve ever weeded a garden, you know the amount of work this involves. Even a single branch can throw the whole system off.
In addition to proper fencing, Singaravelan believes that a steady flow of human activity also keeps the crop-raiding in check. ‘Some places have fences with timers that come on from 6pm to 6am, but people are not actually staying there. Elephants know if there are people moving around the place, and they come accordingly.’
When I ask how he feels about elephants, he says, ‘They are not so bad.’ Unlike the monkeys and the pigs that jump over or dig under the finest of fences. Plus, they have their benefits, he tells me. ‘When the elephants come, they shake the jackfruit trees to drop the fruits, which scares the monkeys that live in the trees and keeps them away.’
When the Yahnai Comes
When the elephants visit, Singaravelan says the dogs are the first to sound the alert. ‘Once we know it is an elephant, we make sounds to let the animal know we are here. Some elephants respond to the sound alone, and they will return the way they came. Others don’t, so we call our neighbours and we make more sounds, using plates and vessels like drums, and then they go away slowly.’
Occasionally, the elephant lingers on the property for hours so the farmers notify the Forest Department. Sometimes, firecrackers are burst to get the animals to move, but that often leads to more damage to fencing and vegetation due to the agitated movement of the animals. ‘There was this one elephant,’ says Singaravelan. ‘It was quite small, not very tall and had a problem leg, but it would break even powerful electric fencing. If he came, he would eat everything, and we couldn’t chase him away. But not all elephants cause problems. There is one male elephant around Pethuparai, very gentle. He follows his path, people take videos and all, but he doesn’t give any problems.’
We talk of elephant dung and how it is always full of seeds—evidence of the megaherbivore’s role in the ecosystem as seed dispersers. In some senses, they are gardeners too, on the grandest of scales. Where I might prune branches and mound soil to grow some beans and tomatoes for my family and a few bulbuls and caterpillars in my garden, the elephant bumps down entire trees, drops seeds and manure, and feeds generations of humans, animals and birds. Perhaps the tusker that visited me was just checking out the ways of a fellow gardener, I thought to myself. He did leave me a plentiful deposit of manure before he left.
The Big Questions
That evening, I Rubik’s Cube these questions of coexistence while I watch the mist move in and out of the valley, over forests, banana plantations, and farms trellised with bean and chow chow plants. So often, when I wake up in the morning, I give silent thanks to be able to live here, amidst these incredible hills, so rich in natural history, so brimming with vitality, but I also wonder what this valley would be like a decade or two from now.
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? Can we find our middle ground? Was I being naive to even consider it? The more I ponder, the more evident the fault lines between my heart and mind become, and it occurs to me, that these questions might not have definitive answers at all. After months of conversations with friends, farmers, biologists and Forest Department officials, all I can say for sure is that there isn’t one magic solution.
What works in Pethuparai might not work in Poombarai or Kookal, 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, this one, I understand, will require constant work. Parts of it will come with heartache, parts of it might require serious compromise, but parts of it could be pretty wonderful, too.
An abridged version of this article appeared in Mint Lounge earlier this month.