Four years after the Thirunelli-Kudrakote elephant corridor in Kerala's Wayanad district was granted protection by the state government, there has been an increase in the movement of elephants, the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) said in a recent report. In addition, the presence of other species such as tigers and spotted deer has also seen an increase in the area.
Initiated by the Kerala government around 15 years ago in association with the WTI and several other national and international NGOs, the Wayanad corridor is the first of its kind in South Asia where the villagers who resided directly in the path of the elephant movement were encouraged to voluntarily move and were relocated to another place.
Started in 2004-05, the Wayanad Corridor Securement Project aimed to secure the corridor by purchasing land owned by villagers and/or providing them with a suitable alternate land along with a rehabilitation package for economically backward villagers. The project was undertaken after assessing long-term socio-economic status and aspirations of the villagers and the prior informed consent of all the villagers.
Through the project, WTI, in collaboration with the Kerala Forest Department, and with the support by Elephant Family, IUCN Netherlands and World Land Trust (WLT) secured the Tirunelli-Kudrakote elephant corridor land from four village settlements - Thirulakunnu, Valiya Emmadi, Kottapady and Puliyankolly - and voluntarily relocated people to an alternate site.
The Thirunelli-Kudrakote corridor, spanning 2,200-acre, is located in the tri-junction of Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Till date, 37 acres have been secured to ensure that the corridor remains unbroken, helping link 6,500 elephants and other species.
With the project's success, the state government has initiated a process to "acquire and secure" all elephant corridors in Kerala.
Surendra Kumar, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests and Chief Wildlife Warden, Kerala, told The Indian Express, "There are seven elephant corridors in Kerala. Of these, two are already secure and need no land acquisition. One has been secured for us by the WTI. We have initiated acquisition in the remaining four corridors and plan to escalate the process."
The nearly 200 villagers who were relocated for the corridor have been provided pucca houses in place of the thatched huts they lived in earlier and also have the assurance that their crops would not be destroyed by elephants. Furthermore, before the villagers relocated, roads were constructed, power lines laid and water facilities provided in the new areas.
"We will leave no stone unturned in elephant conservation, but we have to ensure that elephant conservation is in sync with human existence and we will also try to find out a way so that a safe, secure and a symbiotic future is assured for both elephants and humankind," Soumitra Dasgupta, (IFS), Addl. DG (Wildlife), Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) said in a statement by WTI.
The report added that even during the initial stages of consultation, the Thirulakunnu villagers themselves asked to be relocated. While the villagers in Edayur Vayal did not want to move, they were not forced and continue to stay there.
According to the report, while 100 per cent of the corridor resident families faced conflicts with wildlife regularly, over 90 per cent of the relocated families said that the new locations were largely free from wild animal encounters.
The report stated that the villagers' annual income has gone up to ₹1,75,080 per annum per family from the previous ₹41,040. Along from the saved crops, access to market facilities and jobs also helped with the increase in income.
Further, these areas also have better access to roads, schools, hospitals and ancillary facilities. The villagers have also been coming forward for vaccinations. In addition, the illiteracy among them has also gone down to 28 per cent from 33 per cent.
"Wayanad is a complex landscape, the aspirations of the local community, the high densities of human population all have to be factored in such initiatives, even though the land extent is small this particular is very important for elephant conservation," said Noyal Thomas, (IFS), IG – Project Elephant, MoEFCC.
"This is one of the 27 critical corridors identified by the High Level Task Force in 2010, WTI's experience and expertise will definitely be required for further consolidation of critical elephant corridors in this habitat," he added.
Meanwhile, in another success for the project, the Forest Department also captured its first tiger movement in the corridor on its camera traps several years ago and the last sighting was in March.
Of the 37 acres secured in the corridor, which falls between the protected areas of the Brahmagiri Wildlife Sanctuary and Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary, 25.3 acres were acquired on a private purchase model by the WTI. The remaining 12 acres were secured by the Asian Nature Conservation Foundation and handed over the land to the Kerala Forest Department, in a process that took nearly a decade.
"The Thirunelli-Kudrakote corridor is one of the most important ecologically. South India has one of the highest populations and concentrations of elephants and this corridor connects some of the biggest elephant-inhabited areas," WTI's Officer In-Charge, Corridors, Upasana Ganguly said.
"When an elephant corridor is fragmented, then elephants cannot migrate and this leads to inbreeding and genetic isolation. When that happens there is a big chance of the population declining," Ganguly added.
Talking about the initiative, Ruth Ganesh, Principal Trustee, Elephant Family, said, "This wasn't a 'cookie cutter approach', there were different sized houses to accommodate different families. It was really satisfying to see the happiness of these families with access to buses, roads and drinking water and unconstrained in their daily movement due to wildlife and to see that our initial test project has worked."
In South India, there are 28 corridors that are essential for the movement of 14,612 elephants between protected areas. Every year, India sees 450 deaths due to encounters with elephants and at least 500,000 families affected due to the man-animal conflict.
Around 100 elephants are also known to be killed every year in the conflict. It is also estimated that elephants damage 0.8 to 1 million hectares of crops every year.
"We hear a lot in conservation about negativities, this project shows that you can create win-wins for both wildlife and for people, congratulations to everyone for having had the vision and the tenacity and perseverance to see this through," Jonathan Barnard, CEO, World Land Trust, said.