Protest brews as mammoth elephant corridor project may hit over 35,000 households in Gudalur, Nilgiris

An elephant herd crosses road. File Photo: Manorama

Nilgiris: The Tamil Nadu Forest Department and the people of Gudalur and Pandalur taluks of Nilgiris district of Tamil Nadu are on a collision course, as the latter is up in arms against the proposed project to extend the existing elephant corridor, to a larger area covering thousands of households.

Establishing the corridors would affect 37,856 households in 46 villages, apart from regulating the human movement through the state highways, including the Gudalur-Mysore road, Gudalur-Ooty road and Gudalur-Nadukani-Nilambur road.

According to the draft report, the Gudalur region has three additional elephant corridors -- the Segur Plateau Elephant Corridor of Masinagudi Forest Division, the Gudalur Forest Division Corridor and the O-Valley Corridor. The corridors of the Gudalur region have been mentioned in detail (pages 35-47), in the 160-page draft report prepared by the Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests V Naganathan.

The 80 year old 'C 4th' estate factory at O-Valley panchayath, Gudalur, Nilgiris.. Photo: Special Arrangement

According to the forest department, the proposed corridors provide a crucial passage for elephants from Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary, Nilambur Forest Division (Kerala), Nagarhollai National Park and Bandipur National Park both in Karnataka, Gudalur Forest Division and Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary (both in Tamil Nadu). Basically, the corridors would give a passage for elephants from the Eastern Ghats to the Western Ghats.

The wildlife region spread over five forest zones has the presence of 432 elephants as per the census held by the Wildlife Trust of India in 2012. The Segur corridor has 513 households in 8 villages, the Gudalur Forest Division corridor has 7 villages of 34796 households and O-Valley Corridor has 31 villages of 2547 households. However, the report has been silent on the villages' names that would be affected while executing the project.

Ellamala Village in O-Valley Panchayath, Gudalur, Nilgiris. Photo: Special Arrangement

The residents are simmering with anger and confusion as the notification issued by the forest department is vague and was in English, not in Tamil or Malayalam, languages spoken by the local populace, thus denying the farmers the freedom to read and understand the facts independently.

Gudalur MLA Pon Jayasheelan told Onmanorama that the forest department is going ahead with a massive elephant corridor project which would displace two-thirds of the population of the region. ''The draft report was uploaded to the website on April 29, 2024, and I, who represents the region, came to know about it only on May 2. A deadline (May 5) was also set for the public to register objections. They tried to implement the project in haste,'' Jayasheelan said.

Elephants crossing roads, moving from one farm to other, wreaking havoc, is a regular sight at O-Valley. Photo: Special Arrangement

On the conflicting reports on elephant corridors, Jayasheelan pointed out that a compilation of reports by elephant experts Sivaganesan and Sukumar indicated that there are 25 elephant corridors in Tamil Nadu while another expert says there are only 18. However, the recent findings of the Project Elephant initiative say that there are 20 elephant corridors. However, the new report prepared by the Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests V Naganathan says that they have identified 42 elephant corridors. So, in fact, how many elephant corridors are there in the state, asks Jayasheelan.

According to Shaji Chelivayal, leader of the Federation of Small Tea Growers Association (FESTA), the ‘O’ Valley’ village panchayat is the most affected as many farmers’ houses were allegedly earmarked by the forest department for demolition, saying that the households fall in the elephant corridor.

Gandhi Nagar, a village O-Valley Panchayath, Gudalur, Nilgiris. Photo: Special Arrangement

Though Onmanorama tried to contact Gudalur DFO Venkatesh Prabhu, he was unavailable for comments. An expert panel has been constituted to monitor and guide the complex procedures for establishing the corridors. The panel includes only forest and wildlife experts and representatives of the environmentalists, while the farmers’ representatives are missing.

Even environmental organisations are concerned about the massive project which may lead to the eviction of thousands of families. Noted activist Tarsh Thekkaekara, founder of ‘The Shola Trust’, an NGO, who is also a member of the expert committee, told Onmanorama that elephant corridors are traditionally understood as narrow strips of human-free natural habitat connecting larger wildlife habitats. ''This was relevant in the 1980s when elephants were very much afraid of, and avoided human habitats. Today whether barriers are built or not, elephants cross it, leading to wildlife attacks in every inhabited zone,'' he said.

The comments posted here/below/in the given space are not on behalf of Onmanorama. The person posting the comment will be in sole ownership of its responsibility. According to the central government's IT rules, obscene or offensive statement made against a person, religion, community or nation is a punishable offense, and legal action would be taken against people who indulge in such activities.