K.M. Chinnappa was quoted in the Karnataka News expressing his fears about the future of elephants, just as he expressed them to us in "Elephants in the Coffee."
Chinnappa has long been a defender of elephants, and I mean that quite literally. When he became a forest warden in the 1970s, the forests of southern India had a great number of poachers. As he tells it, he and other wardens shot poachers to prevent them from harming elephants and other wild animals.
This strategy of shooting poachers rather than try to take them to court has been adopted in other areas where endangered species are being killed for profit. We spoke with a former special forces officer who trains game wardens to fight poachers in Kruger National Park in South Africa. The battle for the lives of rhinos and elephants there is so violent that dozens of rangers have been killed. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, more than 1,000 forest rangers world-wide have been killed fighting poachers over the past 10 years.
Chinnappa was one of the rangers who early-on took a hard line against poachers. Now, with the greatest threat to elephants in India being agricultural conflicts, Chinnappa is taking a hard line again.
Here is what Chinnappa told a gathering recently, according to the Karnataka News:
"The number of elephants is diminishing in the state. Apart from this, usually the female elephants used to be seen in groups but now single female elephants are seen roaming in the forest. When it is pregnant, if there is no proper companion the elephants become vulnerable. In last ten years in Karnataka state alone, 201 elephants have died. If this is the statistics of the Karnataka state think about Tamil Nadu and Kerala," he said adding that there is a need to conserve elephants because with the existence of elephants the forest cover will be good and since the elephants reproduce only once in six to seven years, there is need to protect their numbers.
Chinnappa is calling for curbing forest fire completely. In addition, he wants elephants provided with 5,000 square kilometers of Nilgiri Biosphere reserve consolidated exclusively for the animals. They must be kept away from human interference and provided with adequate water and natural food so that their numbers increase, he said.
The retired ranger also wants farmers to be compensated quickly whenever there is elephant damage to crops or structures.
Othewise, Chinnappa fears, the elephant will be gone from the area within 50 years.
Workers in Kerala tried to use an earthmover to drive away an elephant, and now the elephant is dead. The story in the Manorama News says the elephant in Munnar, Kerala, had been causing problems in the area for three months. It had destroyed vehicles, nearly hurt a motorcycle rider and wandered into a factory.
That's when a worker tried to drive the elephant away with an earth mover, or as some would say, a backhoe. A television station posted video of the confrontation.
But now the elephant has been found dead, and authorities have seized the earthmover as part of the investigation.
Here is what Rajeev N. Kurup wrote about it on Facebook:
"Post-mortem report says the animal died of internal bleeding. It adds that the elephants internal organs sustained injuries after being hit by the earthmover. The driver and the vehicle have been taken into custody. This happened Munnar,Kerala., Tata estate.
"The wild Tusker died due to injuries when it was hit by the JCB escavator blade on its forehead.
"The latest victim of this is our Great Tusker "Chilli Komban," known for being calm and harmless ,according to locals and watchers. It was seen as one of the hero tuskers of Munnar.
He had been near the Chenduvurai factory under KDHP , since last 3 days and was being chased from all over, though it had stood harmless. Once it entered the factory premises , JCB was used to shoo it off , which was not needed at all. They could have used other means that wouldn't have killed him. This had clearly hit the tusker , leading to its sudden fall in physical condition. It was then reported dead in the same area."
Note that Kurup says the incident happened on a Tata estate. We found Tata to be one of the best agriculturalists when it came to co-existing with elephants. But some are pointing their finger at the company with regard to this death.
This is more evidence that human-elephant conflict continues to grow in India.
Much of our work in "Elephants in the Coffee" revolves about the Indian government's effort to take wild rogue elephants and domesticate them. We see members of the Jenu Kuruba tribe capture elephants, place them in kraals for three months to force the elephant into submission, and then live in close contact with the elephant for years afterward. This form of domestication of wild elephants has a history dating back as much as 6,000 years.
However, we hear again and again of elephants killing their mahouts, or trainers. Today there is another story, this out of Africa, of an elephant turning on his trainer. The elephant has been trained to give rides to tourists at Victoria Falls. Suddenly, it turned on its trainer and killed him.
In that story, the Zimbabwe National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals cautions that elephants can never be domesticated. And if you watch "Elephants in the Coffee" carefully, one mahout says that some elephants can never be made to submit to a human.
And yet India relies on mahouts to domesticate and train elephants -- and to do that with the most difficult animals, elephants who have already been identified as killing people. When we hear of elephants turning on a trainers or mahouts and harming them, perhaps we should not be surprised.
An article in The New Indian Express points out how widespread the conflict between agriculture and elephants has become in southern India. The map shows the Nilgiri biosphere, home to about 6,000 wild elephants. The area that we have focused on in "Elephants in the Coffee" is near the Rajiv Gandhi National Park, which is better known as Nagarhole National Park. You can see that in the upper left of the map.
But the conflict discussed in the article is in far south of the Nilgiri biosphere, and about 350 kilometers (about 220 miles) from the area reported on in our documentary. Yet according to the article, wild elephants near Marayoor in Kerala, India, are creating a deadly problem for residents.
The article says 33 people have been killed by elephants there, including a visually challenged girl who was recently gored by a tusker. The article also says wild elephants have been destroying farmland.
In this case, the wild elephant causing problems has been driven back into a natural park. However, the case points out the difficulty of trying to separate humans from elephants with fences, as some have proposed. The map shows the huge range of elephants in southern India. Putting up an elephant fence at the cost of $200,000 per kilometer, as park officials are now trying to do at Nagarhole, could cost billions.
Another elephant has been electrocuted in the Coorg district of southern India, or as many know it, Kogadu. As this story tells, the carcass was discovered by workers for the electric company. The discovery of the dead elephant was the beginning of more finger-pointing.
A tree had fallen on the wires, and the broken wires subsequently killed a 12-year-old female elephants. Fallen trees are good conductors of electricity, so a browsing elephant can be killed by touching it.
The District Forest Officer chose to place the blame on coffee farmers, saying they had failed to clear dry and fallen trees from their estate.
However, others blame the Forest Department for failing to drive wild elephants back into the national forest.
As "Elephants in the Coffee" points out, co-existence between agriculture and elephants is extremely difficulty, and the finger-pointing makes it even more difficult.
In July, seven elephants were killed in Coorg due to electrocution.
We have discussed the notion of elephant-friendly tea with the people at the University of Montana who pioneered the idea. Now, as you can read here, their elephant-friendly tea is on sale in America.
As the reporter here writes, "The farm-to-cup program means that tea growers who practice elephant-friendly techniques, such as not installing deep and narrow irrigation ditches that kill baby elephants, can get certification. And conservation-minded consumers in places like Missoula can find the Certified Elephant Friendly Tea at local companies like the Lake Missoula Tea Company, Café Dolce and the Good Food Store."
We think the idea merits consideration for coffee farmers, too. As we report in "Elephants in the Coffee," some elephants now live within the coffee plantations. They have food and water there, and shade from the sun.
The elephant-friendly certification is one way that farmers and others can say, "We will work to live with elephants, so that we all can have good lives."
Look for elephant-friendly tea. One day, perhaps, you fill find elephant-friendly coffee, too.
Odisha is another area where elephant conflicts have taken a huge toll. According to the Hindu, "Odisha has recorded one of the worst man-elephant conflicts in the country. Since 2013-14, 311 elephants have been killed with annual average elephant deaths estimated at over 70. During the same period, 275 humans lost their lives in elephant depredation."
But despite the conflicts, the wild elephant population is holding steady, and perhaps growing a little. In a population study conducted in Odisha and three other states in May, the government found that the number of elephants had grown by 22 elephants in the past two years, up from 1,954 to 1,976.
That is less than one percent grown per year, but it is hopeful. Elephant populations in India have been in severe decline for most of the past century,
Dr. Thomas Grant
Professor of Journalism at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College