Wildlife is now pushing back at humans in Wayanad and residents are angry with the Forest Department
“When the forest officials herded the elephants towards his plantation, the old man came out brandishing his gun and told them that his property was not for grazing department’s wild elephants,” goes one story about an old man in Wayanad.
Padmanabhan Nambiar, 84, living in Pariyaram near the town of Panamaram in Wayanad district of Kerala has gained a legendary reputation even in places a few ranges apart. In the fight against the animals he is identified as a warrior.
Nambiar’s heroic resistance owes more to the dire conditions he has been reduced to than anything else.
“The situation is very bad here,” Padmanabhan Nambiar says, with folded hands. “Elephants cause the maximum damage. Then there are wild boars, deer, monkeys and peacocks. Sometimes they come in numbers of one or two,” he says referring to the elephants. “At other times they come in numbers of 8 and 10.”
Walking through the coffee plantation which lay unattended on either side of the dirt road, Padmanabhan Nambiar shows the havoc wreaked by animals.
Belonging to the Thonder Nambiar family which was one of the ten original families amongst whom Wayanad had been divided in the pre-colonial era, Padmanabhan Nambiar’s life today is anything but regal.
Living with his wife in a plantation which is close to 100 acres, Nambiar’s is a tale of helplessness. There is no human-animal conflict. There is one man, a woman and animals who do whatever they wish to do.
Pariyaram Estate, which he inherited from his ancestors, lies in ruins even as Nambiar writes letters and representations to all and sundry.
Approach roads overgrown with weeds, a rusted gate locked for what seemed like eternity without boundary walls on either side, the house itself in an irreversible state of decay, the estate seems like a natural extension of the forests.
The footmarks of elephants right at the front door mark their say in matters.
“I can’t get people to work anymore,” Nambiar says referring to the other reason why his plantation is what it is today. “They are all afraid of the animals which sometimes don’t leave even during daytime. Thankfully no one has been hurt yet.”
His wife Radha Nambiar, the only other inhabitant of the estate says, “The elephants sometimes come as early as 5 in the evening. We can’t go out nor return home. They come right up to our front yard, pass by the side of the house, destroy crops and do whatever it is that pleases them.
Last year they trampled all the rice which was ready for harvest in our field below, leaving us with nothing. This year, we didn’t even try sowing because of that,” she says.
Inspite of the damage caused to him, Padmanabhan Nambiar has a compassionate view of elephants.
“They like mangoes and jackfruits, so they come and uproot the trees to savour the fruits. What do they know about whose land it is and what they are doing to us,” he says smiling.
“The animal nuisance has intensified in the last few years. My understanding is that road closure in the nights has caused this. These are not elephants who have traditionally lived here. The old ones know the boundaries. These are elephants who have reached here from the other side,” he says referring to the movement of elephants from the forests of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, aided by the closure of roads in the night which allowed easy movement of herds towards the greener and more plentiful forests of Kerala.
“It was after the Ooty-Gundlepete and Bathery-Gundlepete roads were closed that their numbers here have increased. Also, there is not enough food in the forest to feed them sufficiently.”
Changes in land use for tourism in the nearby Kurinji Islands on the Kabani river are also cited as a reason.
“Earlier they used to drink water there. Now they just go through our plantation and drink from these parts,” says Nambiar.
Just behind his house, the remains of two elephants which died in two consequent years lay buried. Folklores and legends aside, the high tension wires above, which caused their death, now stand with a sheath of insulation to prevent further deaths; a delayed awakening on the part of the Forest Department as well as the Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB).
“We can’t drink water from the well,” says Nambiar. “That is the biggest problem now. We have to collect rain water to drink.
While one elephant was cremated, the other was buried right next to where it died. The water in the well down below from which we drink is affected by seepage,” says Padmanabhan. But that is of course not the only thing worrying Nambiar.
His estate with the coffee beans ripe to be harvested lies unattended. The rubber trees ready to be tapped, the cocoa fruits grown brown and carved hollow by animals are in neglect and the nuts from the coconut trees ploughed off the ground by the elephants line the dirt road circling the plantation.
Down below, a 10 acre paddy field lay unused.
“We get compensation of Rs 5000 for loss of a lakh and more,” says Radha Nambiar. “What are we to do with that?” she asks.
This is fairly common according to PT Velayudhan who lives on the other side of the hill and has a similar tale to tell.
“I am the best example of someone who has ruined himself by persisting with farming,” says Velayudhan, 74, living in Punjavayil in Neervaram.
Velayudhan’s property of 10 acres has come under increased attack of wild animals in recent years.
“I have been farming here since 1965. It was only since 2008 that elephants have begun to appear,” he says. “Before that, the forests here never had elephants, leave alone the menace of elephants on our lands,” he says.
“They have destroyed most of my coconut trees. They don’t eat anything but the supple shoot. But still they will push whole trees to the ground. These six coconut trees were pushed to the ground by elephants on the day of the parliamentary elections. Nine elephants had come, along with a baby elephant. They did this,” he says counting the six trees which lay on the ground one after the other.
“I have lost more than 350 coconut trees till date,” he says. “Every time a coconut tree is felled by elephants, other plants standing in the vicinity also gets destroyed. I have lost 18 nutmeg trees as also the cardamom plants.”
“Monkeys strip the branches of coffee plants thus destroying standing crops adversely. The other problem with crop loss is that the compensation given is very minimal. The forest department gives a meagre Rs 770 per coconut tree lost.
As for coffee, they give nothing unless a plant is totally destroyed. Elephants don’t uproot coffee plants neither do monkeys. Elephants just twist the branches standing in their way to make their path clear while monkeys strip them off their produce.”
“The Forest Department officials act as if they are giving the compensation out of their own pocket. If 10 trees are lost, they write only 7. This means a farmer never gets any meaningful compensation for loss of crops even as per the meagre admissible rates.
In contrast, when GAIL pipeline was being laid, the government gave compensation of Rs 12,078 per coconut tree lost. What does that say?” he asks.
“According to the forest department’s rates, a rubber tree is given Rs 330, an arecanut tree gets Rs 165 and nutmeg gets Rs 440 while mango and jackfruit trees get NIL compensation,” says Velayudhan.
In contrast, the rates for the same trees given to those who suffered crop loss due to the GAIL pipeline laying were Rs 5443 for a rubber tree, Rs 3934 per arecanut tree, Rs 54,562 for a nutmeg tree, Rs 11,750 for a mango tree and Rs 8710 for a jackfruit tree.
“The double standards couldn’t be more glaring,” says Velayudhan.
“The elephants have destroyed close to 140 of my 150 coconut trees,” says Bobby P, another farmer living near the Neikuppa forests in Neervaram region of Wayanad where animals cause havoc on a daily basis.
“Wild boars pierce the coconuts and leave the semi-ripe and ripe ones behind. I had planted bananas in a considerable part of my land. These animals destroyed them all. Elephants only eat the inner flesh of the plant while boars dig the root and flatten the plant in the process. Monkeys shreds the fruits whether ripe or not, even if they don’t eat them at all. This is how they destroy crops. Had they eaten them it would have been less frustrating still,” he says.
“Boars also dig the roots whenever we apply dung for pepper. This is apart from all the diseases that are prevalent in the crops which a farmer has to care for. How can we continue to care to grow crops?” he asks.
“Government has to do something. We are helpless. I no longer feel like doing anything on the land as the animals invariably destroy everything I grow.
Even up to 10 years earlier, we never had any of these animals here. The situation today is that if the animals reach here today, next year they spread 5-10 kms further,” he says.
“Rail fencing and rope fencing are said to be effective in stopping movement of elephants and boars. Government should do whatever is needed to protect the farmers,” he says.
“One morning an elephant was standing in the front yard of our house. The door was open and I thought it was a domesticated elephant and kept looking for the mahout. It was only half an hour later when the forest guards came asking if I had seen any elephant that I realised that it was a wild elephant.
The situation is so scary now that we can’t allow children to play outside even. Last year all of our rice was lost after half of it was harvested as elephants came down to the paddy fields and toyed with the crops. What do we do?” she asks.
“There were no animals here earlier. If there had been, we would never have built our house here. This land has belonged to us over 4 to 5 generations at least. Even 10 to 12 years back none of these animals were here,” she says.
“It has become difficult for us to travel alone at night. One day an elephant blocked our way in the night and we had to wait till it moved away before we could enter our home.
The Forest Department should do whatever is necessary to keep these animals within the forest lands,” she says.
“The forest officials get a lot of money as allowances for shepherding stray animals, for their burials, compensation for crop loss and what not. It is in their interests to keep this game as it is,” says Santhosh Achari, an activist in Nadavayal town of Wayanad which has seen animals intruding into the town as well as nearby villages at accelerated rates every passing year.
Achari is the BJP Poothadi Panchayat Unit’s party secretary and was jailed for 23 days for organising a protest in the compound of Bathery Wildlife Warden last year.
“It was when the bamboo inside the forest shrunk that the elephants first started coming out. But today they come as they have taken a liking to the acquired tastes,” he says. “And it is not just the elephants which cause havoc.”
“What is needed is for the government to clearly separate forests from the villages. For this, rail fencing with wire mesh is the best option. But citing paucity of funds no action is being taken.
Even the 10 km fencing which was started has now been stopped. Moreover it was divided into two sections to cater to demands of people on either sides, rendering it useless overall.
In my studies I have found that Karnataka has done good work in fencing off the wild animals, thereby protecting their farmers.”
The same very fencing is cited as a reason by farmers who say it has forced herds to move towards Wayanad.
“Here nothing is being done. Farmers are being forced into depression and despair. Farmer suicide seem to be where we are heading towards.”
Expressing concerns of foul play in the fencing activities undertaken he says, “The rates that the Forest Department has quoted for rail fencing here is double of that in Karnataka where even at the cheap rates, accusations of corruption were making rounds.”
“While they finished the work at the rate of Rs 65 lakh per km in Karnataka, here the rates are as high as Rs 1.34 crore. My understanding is that there is corruption involved,” he says, a claim The Lede could not verify independently.
“There are vested interests who want to continue building stone walls even though they are known to be less effective. Elephants can easily break stone walls and they cannot be built over marshy and swampy lands. Rail fencing with wire mesh on the other hand can be installed in all terrains and doesn’t breach easily.
What happens is that under the pretext of quarrying for stone walls, quarries make money by diverting the stones elsewhere. This has been happening for a long time now. In one instance a contractor offered Rs 20 lakh to the officials for getting the contract to build stone walls. There is so much money to be made,” he says.
Citing the inequality in the laws he says, “At present the animals are given more protection as compared to the humans living in the vicinity of forests.
If an animal dies in a farmer’s land for whatever reasons, the Forest Department charges the steepest sections. The farmers are forced into ruins trying to fight off the cases and proving their innocence.
But when two elephants died at the same spot because they came out of the forests and came in contact with electric wires, did they file a case against the Wildlife Warden and hold him responsible for it?” he asks.
“By suppressing farmers, they are pushing them into a corner. One time or the other a reaction will ensue. Governments and activists have to understand the basic tenet that everyone has a life and we are all the same.
Instead of trying to protect the farmers from crop loss and trying to keep the animals within the forest, the department and its officials see it as a source of income. They create individual schemes which are never unified.
For example first they will come with a scheme to make trenches in some parts, then halfway through it another scheme to make stone walls is propped up and before that is completed in any meaningful manner electric fences are proposed. This never ending saga only helps the officials and no one else.
“There are Vana Samrakshana Samithi’s which meet every once in a while to look into the issues faced by villagers. It is here that issues of broken fences, their repairs and things like that are taken up.
For the officials involved, the fences have to be broken every once in a while for them to have a good flow of cash. Their interests naturally lie there,” he says. “And that is part of the problem.”
“Poor farmers are easily victimised and the losses they incur are not even accepted as a reality. These are people who have lived in the periphery of forests for centuries on end. But their opinions are never sought nor valued.
When the forest officials were told at a public hearing that the problem of multiplying wild boars was because of disappearance of foxes and that the solution would be to re-introduce foxes, they laughed at us.
They have money and time to transport dead and dying tigers for thousands of kilometres in the name of conservation but no intent to do this one small thing. Who do they work for? Is it wrong for us to assume that they work for the foreign fund they receive in the name of tiger and elephant conservation and don’t actually care for the farmers here?”
That foxes which naturally preyed on wild boars have disappeared is an often repeated reason cited by farmers throughout Wayanad for the increase in wild boars. The reason, they say, is that the foxes ate crabs and frogs which had ingested the pesticides applied by farmers on crops.
“And who forced pesticides down on the farmers?” asks Achari. “Who is responsible for that? At least 80% of the harvest should be given as compensation for crop lost due to attacks by wild animals. How else will farmers survive?
The media doesn’t report the farmers’ struggle for whatever reasons and they suffer in the underbelly. Everyone else stays immunised from their struggles and a farmer’s struggle always remain theirs alone.
Everyone talks about conservation, travelling in AC cars they want the farmers here to suffer and sacrifice everything for them. Why is no one worried about how they survive?” he asks.
For the marginal farmers of Nadavayal and the surrounding Neikuppa hamlets near Padiri forest, life is even more difficult.
(In Part 2 of this story, we look at the struggles of marginal farmers in Wayanad and the Forest Department which is inefficient at best and bucolic at worst.)