Relocating the Occupiers and Rewilding the Forests can save Elephants

Sangita Iyer

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Representational Image. AFP

My mission to patch up the fragmented forests had been conceived by my heart in 2013 after I witnessed the plight of an elephant, who had fallen into a trench in the Wayanad forest. I had no idea if or how this could even be possible, but the seed had been planted…

In 2016, following the release of my documentary, Gods in Shackles, I created an organization called Voice for Asian Elephants Society (VFAES) with a group of passionate and genuine conservationists. We began implementing smaller projects, such as heightening awareness, nature retreat for youth, technology to prevent elephant deaths on train tracks, covering open wells and others across Kerala, West Bengal, Odisha.

But I realized that human-elephant conflict was escalating, with more than 400 wild elephants dead in this state between 2018 and 2021, according to the Kerala Forests & Wildlife Department (KFWD). In a short span of four years, there had been a 7% decline, based on an estimated 5,706 wild elephants in Kerala as per the 2017 elephant census.

Human population was also on the rise, owing to people moving to Kerala from the northeastern regions of India, despite the fact that human birth had remained stable in much of southern India. This explains why, although Kerala covers only 1.18% of the total area of India, it supports about 3.43% of the total population of the country. Approximately 37 million people in Kerala share nearly 39,000 sq. km., cramming into every cent of available space, pushing the demand for land.

But this isn’t a recent phenomenon. In order to understand the current land-grab crisis in Kerala we need to understand that the demand for Kerala land has been historically high. As far back as 3000 BC, foreigners like Assyrians and Babylonians were drawn to Kerala’s spices. During the 5th century AD, Romans and Arabs were conducting a “brisk trade with Kerala in pepper, cardamom, lavender, ginger, garlic, and other spices and condiments,” according to the Kerala Forests & Wildlife Department (KFWD).

Photo: Special Arrangement

The year 1905 ushered in Agro-forestry practices (that combines agriculture with forestry), and the British government had leased out forest areas for cardamom cultivation. Forestland was also given to the tribal people free of cost at the rate of 1.2 hectares per family. In 1923, wastelands were sold in bits of 200 hectares to non-tribal people and companies for tea and coffee cultivation. Then in 1942, a whopping 9,600 hectares of forestland was leased out for paddy cultivation, which had a devastating impact on Kerala’s ecosystems. But the leasing process would continue unabated. Eventually lessees began to pressure the government for permanent ownership (Patta) of the land, resulting in the disintegration of forests. And here we are today… reckless land use continues unchecked, accelerating forest fragmentation at an alarming rate.

The most logical solution would be to buy out private plantations that are inside the forests and rewild the land. The timing seemed ripe to revisit the idea of mending the broken forests. VFAES launched a fundraising campaign in mid-2019, and by the beginning of January 2020 we had raised $US 50,000. But COVID brought everything to a screeching halt, and the funds had to be earmarked until travel would ease up.

Then in January 2023 a chain of synchronicities unfolded, connecting me to the Additional Forest Secretary, and as they say, “the rest is history”. Mr. Jyothilal convened an efficient Principle Chief Conservator of Forests, Prakriti Srivastava, who brought onboard the Chief Conservator of Forest, Mr. Vijayanandan and the South Nilambur Divisional Forest Officer, Mr. Praveen, forging a strong alliance of people sharing a common purpose. The three plantation owners were also willing to sell their four-acre plot of land, creating a smooth and efficient process that is near completion. This rare public, private and nonprofit partnership shines light on the power of collaboration and cooperation, key to creating a harmonious coexistence and making peace with elephants and wildlife.

The four-acre plot of plantation land actually opens up as much as eight acres of space, including a patch of feral land in between. And here’s how… Each of the three owners had fenced off their individual plots of land, with electrical wires traveling between the feral land to supply power to the fences surrounding each plot. The wires have now been removed, opening up a vast area for approximately 340 elephants and other wildlife in the region to wander safely between the forest patches.

Nilambur is a critical biodiversity hotspot, home to more than 49 butterfly species, 47 native tree species, 92 species of birds, 15 species of damsel and dragon flies, and not to mention the 340+ elephants and other vertebrates in the Nilambur forest reserve. Clearly, patching up every tiny plot of fragmented land will allow native biodiversity to thrive.

Photo: Special Arrangement

The four-acre plot of land sponsored by VFAES in collaboration with Nature Mates Nature club and KFWD is part of a unique program initiated by Kerala government called Navakiranam which offers unbounded potential for rewilding. Launched in November 2019 under the Rebuild Kerala Initiative, Navakiranam offers financial incentives for people with “marooned settlements to voluntarily relocate to areas of their choice while contributing their land for rewilding.” Among other benefits, each family is entitled to a minimum of 15 lakhs.

Photo: Special Arrangement

There are still small patches of plantations occupying approximately 150 acres of forestland that will soon be reclaimed by the KFWD. Preliminary meetings with land owners have already taken place, setting in motion genuine conservation efforts in the South Nilambur region of Malappuram district. Human-wildlife conflict and having to live with wild animals in perpetual fear, in addition to the depreciating land value caused by a lack of basic amenities have incentivized several plantation owners to sell back the land to the forest department. In exchange they’re receiving handsome cash and benefits such as access to education, jobs, medical care etc.

Photo: Special Arrangement

As of August 2022, only 220 families had taken advantage of this scheme in five divisions that had implemented it. However, in the past 10 months, since the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, Prakriti Srivastava took charge of the project, 601 additional families across 26 forest divisions have agreed to relocate voluntarily, with 894 more applicants lined up to benefit from the scheme. Furthermore, 131 hectares of land has been added to Kerala’s forest-cover, enhancing forest contiguity, while making it safer for the wildlife to wander freely and allowing biodiversity to thrive.

Navakiranam is gaining momentum, with the potential to relocate an estimated 2000 families out of the forests every year and regenerate Kerala’s ecosystems. “This project is truly a win-win strategy for people and biodiversity, especially for marginalized people looking for a helping hand from the Government,” boasts the project report.

Perhaps neighbouring states such as Karnataka and indeed all elephant range states across India could use this blueprint to alleviate human-elephant conflict that is ravaging the lives of people and elephants alike, instead of capturing bull elephants and decimating the species. After all, elephants and all wildlife weave together a magnificent tapestry of the forests that benefit humans, and it is in our best interest to do everything possible to protect India’s rich natural treasures.

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