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Real Estate Contemplations In God’s Own Country

Real Estate Contemplations In God’s Own Country

Even as an assortment of organisations and government bodies work together to secure vital elephant corridors in Kerala, Pranav Capila contemplates the hurdles in their way.

Elephants at the former village of Puliyankolly, now secured forest land. Photo: Pranav Capila.

Thank you for the music; I can still hear it now. That sweet trumpet tone: rich, beautiful, sharp-edged with anger (an ex-girlfriend suddenly comes to mind). The rest is a jumble. A looming grey shape in the darkness, growing very large very quickly. A rapid swerve and acceleration. And briefly in the splash of our headlamps, an anxious little elephant.

We are in the North Wayanad Forest Divison, Kerala, gliding from Mananthavady to Thirunelli on a road as smooth as the local coffee. It has rained earlier in the evening, the air is cool, a thin mist sleeps on the hillsides. A sign flashes by, declaring this the Thirunelli-Kudrakote Elephant Corridor, warning us that elephants have right of way.

A car coming the opposite way stops; its driver flags us down, tells us about the elephant on the road. We try to give her a wide berth but we are too close for her comfort. Fearful for her calf, she trumpets, and charges.

It is a day bookended by elephant encounters.

The First Metric

It is eight o'clock that morning and Sathyan is asking me if I'm ready to run. Sathyan, a forest guard with the Thirunelli Forest Range, B.Com graduate, once a clerk at St. Paul's School, Jaisalmer.

I look at him, confused, then see through a tangle of bushes what he has already heard. There's an elephant about 30 m. away. Zigzag, I tell myself, don't go in a straight line like you did in Pakke (The Forest of Improbable Dreams; Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXV No. 4, April 2015). But the elephant surveys us briefly, masticating, flapping its ears, then moves off to join its companions in the clearing below.

Three adults and a baby. There are four of us here too: my other confrères are Dr. K. Ramkumar, Manager and Project Head of Wildlife Trust of India's (WTI) elephant corridor securement initiatives in south India, and Shajan M., WTI Field Officer. We're looking down at what is now forest land, what was once the village of Puliyankolly. Overgrown rectangular plots, the cement lip of a well and a sprinkling of coffee shrubs are all that remain of what the villagers had left behind.

The 15 families that lived here are now four kilometres away in the village of Chegady, a sprawl of red-roofed homes amidst pepper, orange and coffee plantations. WTI and the U.K.-based NGO Elephant Family had constructed new houses for each of the families prior to their relocation in 2011. Agricultural land was also provided to the families and separate land deeds given to the 11 'married children' among them.

Babu, 32 years old, one of the ‘married children’, has now built his own house with the Thirunelli panchayat's support. He is a father to two children with a third on the way, and works as a daily wage labourer in a nearby ginger farm, occasionally working at construction sites. "There were some advantages to living in Puliyankolly," he says. "Water was more plentiful and it was easier to get fuelwood from the forest. But we have far better livelihood opportunities here. We also have access to schooling for our children, a motorable road into the village, and electricity. But most important, there is no conflict with elephants here. We grew paddy, banana and coffee in Puliyankolly but the elephants spared nothing. Everything was trampled or eaten."

"That's one of the most important metrics of success for a corridor securement," says Ramkumar that night, after our second, considerably closer elephant encounter. "Are the communities we've relocated now free of Human-Elephant Conflict? We cannot pretend that conflict in the wider landscape will reduce immediately – that is a long-term goal – but the communities that lived in the corridor must be better off."

"Of course, our first success metric is what we observed twice today: that elephants are in fact moving freely through the secured lands!"

Secured corridor land where the village of Thirulakunnu once stood. The land to the right, including the pond, remains under private ownership at present. Photo: Pranav Capila.

Narrow and Vital

Confession: until not so long ago I hadn't even heard of elephant corridors. And it wasn't because I was immersed in a world where the brake horsepower of a Phantom Drophead Coupe or the gravity-defying mechanism of a luxury wristwatch (460 bhp and a cage tourbillon respectively) were deemed more important. I had flirted with conservation content for a number of years. But while there were several elephants in the rooms of my life at the time, I knew of none in the corridors.

In simple terms – and putting a concept like this in a nutshell is a bit like trying to put an elephant in a nutshell – an elephant corridor is a narrow, linear natural habitat linkage between two larger forest patches. Corridors don't start off as such, they lie on paths that elephant herds habitually take during their daily or seasonal migrations through their home ranges. But as surrounding forest lands are degraded and fragmented, these remaining tenuous connections are often all that allow elephants (and indeed other wildlife) to move between protected forests freely, uninterrupted and without coming into conflict with humans.

With Human-Elephant Conflict affecting an estimated 5,00,000 families across India annually, causing millions of rupees in crop and property damage, and resulting in the deaths of 400-plus humans and about 100 elephants every year, the securing of corridors (which includes the rehabilitation of communities that reside or make a living within corridor areas) becomes a conservation imperative.

There are 101 mapped elephant corridors across India, and WTI, in collaboration with Project Elephant, the governments of elephant range states, local Forest Departments, and international partners like Elephant Family, World Land Trust, the International Fund for Animal Welfare and IUCN Netherlands, has set plans into motion for their securement. Five corridors have been secured thus far over the last decade and a half. The Thirunelli-Kudrakote Elephant Corridor was the third.

An elephant and her calf exercise their right to passage at the Thirunelli-Kudrakote Elephant Corridor. Securing corridors such as these is a conservation imperative to minimise Human-Elephant Conflict in the long-term. Photo: Ramith M./WTI.

Location, Location, Relocation

"With four villages to relocate this  was especially difficult to secure," says Ramkumar – adding that with the variety of landscapes, cultures and land laws across India there can be no easy securement, no one-size-fits-all greenprint. He, Shajan and I crisscross the corridor over the next three days: we walk the acquired acres in Thirulakunnu, where chital bark at a predator in the vicinity, and the yawning wetland plain at Valiya Emmady, where striped fish in an adjacent jungle river nibble at the edge of my shadow. We visit, too, the people relocated from these lands. Among the four families at Anappara (rehabilitated in 2006), 58-year-old Malaiya, who has just bought a gearless scooter for his daughter. And of the six families in Panavalli (rehabilitated in 2009), Devi, aged 55, more excited than her granddaughters at her home's recent electrification, flicking her porch light repeatedly on and off to convince us that it works.

They have similar stories: of giving up their forest homes not just because of pucca houses or better landholdings, but for a more connected life in the long-term, for access to better livelihood opportunities. And crucially, desperately, to get out of the elephants' way.

WTI’s Shajan M. and K. Ramkumar with 55-year-old Devi (centre) at her house in Anappara. Photo: Pranav Capila.

In Mananthavady we drop in on Narendra Nath Veluri, the dynamic young DFO of the North Wayanad  Forest Division. "A lot of what the Forest Department is doing to address conflict in this area – increased compensation for crop damage for instance, or solar fencing – is just a band-aid," he says. "We know that corridors are the long-term solution and must be addressed immediately. But the sheer bureaucracy of it... even when someone has purchased land and wants to hand it over to us, it can take years to be notified as forest land."

We also visit three vital corridors in urgent need of securement. Periya-Pakranthalam, just 30 m. wide, a fragile link between two parts of the Periya Reserve Forest (RF), at present structurally disconnected due to a cellphone tower and a fenced farmland with an iron gate, forcing elephants through plantations in the valley below. Kottiyur-Periya near Boys Town, connecting the Periya and Kottiyur RFs, impinged in part by solar fencing and too-steep road verges. And across the border in Karnataka, Chamrajnagar-Talamalai at Mudahalli, a thin arc of trees connecting the Talavadi Range of the Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve, Tamil Nadu, and
the Punjur Range of the BRT Tiger Reserve.

All these corridors lie within the larger Brahmagiri-Nilgiris-Eastern Ghats landscape, which supports over 8,500 elephants. Securing them will be a big step towards providing unhindered habitat connectivity for one of the largest Asian elephant populations in the world. It will also address the escalating issue of human-animal conflict in the long-term.

This is a conservation battle for the ages, one that is being fought in an unflinching staredown with red tapism, amidst patta documents and Form B filings on Purpose of Relinquishment, betwixt settlement meetings and Ecologically Fragile Land notifications. For someone like me, for whom the annual filing of a Saral is an ordeal, the mere contemplation of it makes my head spin – and far more than the 27 hairpins on the descent from Hassanur to Sathyamangalam.

A plot map of the Thirunelli-Kudrakote Elephant Corridor in Kerala: a vital habitat link between the two Reserve Forests it is named after, and for elephant movement through the larger landscape. Photo Courtesy: WTI.

An Unequal Music

My entanglement with Kerala's wild lands began a day before I ascended to Wayanad, in the coastal backwaters of Kunhimangalam in the Kannur district. Here, in 2006, with the assistance of World Land Trust, WTI had acquired 18.65 acres of species-rich mangrove habitat. A year ago this became the hub for the WTI-Apollo Tyres Kannur Kandal (Mangrove Conservation) Project, aimed primarily at furthering research and education, and promoting mangrove restoration in Kerala through community and government participation.

The project's nursery in Thuruti is already supplying saplings for volunteers to plant. And school and college students from across Kannur regularly visit the brilliant Mangrove Interpretation Centre, learning about stilt roots and pneumatophores, about the seed dispersal mechanisms of Rhizophora apiculata versus those of Avicennia officinalis (while also quietly giggling about Bruguiera sexangula). They learn about mangrove ecosystems, their vital role as refuges and nurseries for a variety of threatened terrestrial and aquatic species, as an important source of fodder, medicines and firewood for coastal communities, and as buffers against soil erosion, tsunamis, and climatic events like cyclones. They learn, too, how Kerala, which once had 700 sq. km. of mangrove habitat, now just has nine square kilometres (Forest Survey of India, 2015).

The six square kilometres in the Kannur district alone support at least 10 species of mangrove trees, 87 species of fish, 83 species of birds and 13 species of mammals, including the vulnerable smooth-coated otter. The problem is that 90 per cent of this land is under private ownership.

Mangroves act as nurseries for a variety of threatened terrestrial and aquatic species, and are vital buffers against coastal erosion and climate change events. Photo: Pranav Capila.

Walking the perimeter of the secured kandals with WTI Field Officer Ramith M. and Field Assistant Afsal A.G., I see very few mangroves remaining on adjacent lands. Instead, there are coconut plantations, 'reclaimed' areas filled in with red sandy soil (on which mangroves will now never grow), and large rectangular ponds for some form of aquaculture. "Shrimp farming," says Ramith, shaking his head. "The government subsidises it! Mangroves are in fact nurseries for shellfish, but these people are all about high yield and quick money." On the adjoining Perumba river meanwhile, Shaju, a local fisherman tells us that his catch of mangrove red snapper has dwindled to nothing; with last year’s failed monsoon the river’s salinity is too high, he has been fishing since childhood and this is his worst year in living memory.

In nearby Payyanur, Ramith introduces me to Padmanabhan T.P., Director of SEEK, the Society for Environmental Education in Kerala, an organisation that has been at the forefront of conservation awareness in the Malabar region since the mid-1970s. Padmanabhan tells us about the impact of the 'Gulf money' that poured into the region in the 1980s, resulting in "the rampant destruction of all ecosystems." SEEK itself had raised funds and secured four acres of mangroves in the late 1990s, but the focus now is on "curing students of their Nature Deficit Disorder."

I accompany Ramith and Padmanabhan to Thekkumbad Koolom in Cherukunnu 20 km. away. The shrine is famous for its theyyam performance: the only place in all of Kerala where the dancer is a woman. It is also the only mangrove-related sacred grove (communally protected forest lands associated with a presiding deity, where hunting and logging are strictly prohibited) in the state.

When we reach the grove though, we see, on adjoining private lands, coconut plantations and a shrimp hatchery where mangroves once stood. A sandy road now leads right into the grove and the land around the shrine seems to have been cleared to accommodate more worshippers. The space for the sacred mangroves
to plant their roots is depleted, further shrinking.

In the noonday air the irony rings clear and true, like a temple bell. I can still hear it now.

School children from across the Kannur district visit the Mangrove Interpretation Centre at WTI-Apollo Tyres’ Kannur Kandal Project to learn about mangrove ecosystems and their conservation. Photo: Ramith M./WTI.

Author: Pranav Capila, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVII No. 6, June 2017.

 
 
 

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