Plastic waste in forests poses great threat to elephants

By Sangita Iyer

6 min read
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Just imagine a majestic elephant, worshipped and revered by everyone, sifting through a garbage dump, instead of grazing the lush vegetation inside the forest. But a heartbreaking scene of a gentle and friendly bull elephant named Padayappa, totally oblivious to the fire that had been burning at the disposal center was captured in late April, 2023. He was rummaging through the mountain of garbage littered with plastic bags, trying to find food. It happened in the Kallar division of Idukki district in the southern Indian state of Kerala. Fortunately, fire fighters swiftly arrived at the scene and sprayed water on him to force him out. But it could have turned disastrous.

Forest authorities spraying water on Padayappa to force him out of the burning garbage dump.

The question is, why was Padayappa there in the first place? Some media reports suggest, there’s food shortage inside the forests. But that may not be the actual reason. Apparently, there’s an abundance of vegetation inside the forest that elephants can graze on, according to a senior IFS officer, Prakriti Srivastava. She suggests, the real problem is the loss of conventional migratory routes that elephants have been using to reach water and food sources. In this specific area, they need to get to the Anayaringal Dam to drink water, especially during the summer months.

“But now, their traditional pathways are blocked by resorts and other tourism related infrastructures that generate a lot of food waste. And elephants are attracted to food items like bananas, rice and even left-over human food with high salt content in it. All these factors distract the elephants that would otherwise enter the forest, but instead they now linger in human habitat, making encounters with people inevitable. The aggressive behavior of people also confuses and agitates the elephants, resulting in conflict,” she says.

Unlike the elephants who are lured to a cropland on the forest fringes, Padayappa was merely following his traditional corridor pathway when he came across the dumpsite, and found tasty human food. Thankfully, the officials at the dump site have taken immediate actions, barricading the area, with workers now isolating the leftover vegetables and fruits and dropping them off outside the disposal center to keep this elephant out of harm’s way. It is an interesting dynamic of coexistence in a dramatically changing landscape.

A perfect scavenging haven for wild animals

Speaking of garbage dump, parts of the Periyar Tiger Reserve (PTR), where our famous bull elephant Arikomban was translocated around 10 days back, is also becoming a dumpsite. PTR is part of the Periyar National Park, a repository of rare, endemic, and endangered flora and fauna, with two of the three longest rivers of Kerala flowing through the forest – the Periyar and the Pamba rivers.

The problem is, certain areas of this protected forest is disintegrating, as loads of garbage are being dumped every year, especially on the banks of the Pamba river near the sacred Sabarimala Temple. Between December 30th and January 20th, nearly half a million people make their annual pilgrimage to this temple to witness the Makara Jyothi, the Sirius Star that appears in the sky on an auspicious day of the astrological calendar. It is part of the Makaravalakku Festival.

Many people walk the forests, sacrificing their comforts to reach the holy altar of Kerala’s beloved Lord Ayyapan enshrined inside the Sabarimala Temple, and in the process, desecrate the forest by dumping waste. In just 20 days this area is strewn with plastic bags, spoons, containers, and other plastic objects that eventually make their way into the Pamba River. Allegedly, the cleaners stuff the waste in plastic bags and dump them deep inside the forest, creating a perfect scavenging haven for wild animals.

Body of a female elephant found floating in the Pamba River

According to media reports, in 2018, the body of a female elephant was found floating in the Pamba River, her belly bloated with plastic bags that had choked up her digestive system. And in 2014, another 40-year-old female elephant was found dead in the same region, with about two kilos of plastic waste inside her body. Thanks to the trail of garbage that humans leave behind every year in this blessed place.

Making matters worse, is a malfunctioning sewage treatment facility that processes human waste from nearby hotels that often leaks into the sacred Pamba River, turning it into a dark grey sludge. Elephants and other wild animals bring their young ones and families to drink water from this river. They wander along the riverbanks that are also littered with plastics.

An enormous collection of 170 million pieces of plastic waste, weighing approximately 1,057 tonnes was gathered from nine districts on the Kerala coast by a local environmental organization. In 2019, Thanal sampled waste from 59 locations over a period of five months to discover this staggering amount of plastics in the garbage.

A recent waste study conducted in 10 locations by the Kerala Government’s Suchitwa Mission wing, entitled “Plastic and Other Non-Biodegradable Waste Management in Kerala” found 63.313 tonnes of plastic in just one audit. The top three places that generated the most plastic waste were Riverbank/Drying area collection sites at a whopping 19.104 tonnes, closely followed by Thakaraparambu at 18.057 tonnes and the KSRTC Bus Terminal produced 9.697 tonnes of plastic and non-biodegradable waste.

The good news is, the report also offers practical solutions. In January 2020, single use plastic items were banned in Kerala, and in 2021, 10,000 government offices were identified as green offices. Although many government departments may be embracing the 3R concept – Reduce, Reuse and Recycle – the general public needs to be made aware that plastic is harmful not only to human health and the environment, but is also killing elephants and other land mammals, while poisoning marine animals that humans consume. And few would deny that garbage dumpsites also tarnish the aesthetics and the breathtaking beauty of Kerala, dubbed ‘God’s own country’.

Meanwhile, Arikomban may have escaped the mad rush at Sabarimala this year. But if he keeps wandering across the PTR, at some point he might discover piles of garbage inside this lush forest. For now though, he has traversed more than 20 kilometers within three days, reaching the bordering state of Tamil Nadu (TN) where the forest officials are spending sleepless nights, straining to drive him back into the PTR. A video released by the TN forest officials shows them desperately trying to prevent him from crossing over to their state.

But the reality is, he doesn’t understand the concept of state or national borders. He’s a vagabond by nature. Elephants are a migratory species, genetically wired to wander across vast areas, along the same ancient routes that their parents and grandparents travelled. It is a map this is imprinted in their minds forever. So, it’s a futile exercise trying to chase him away. He’ll do what pleases him, stop to graze and drink water, as he tries to find his way back home, which some elephant experts predict may be a possibility.

No matter where they turn, elephants are faced with insurmountable threats caused by reckless human actions. Deadly train tracks and national highways cutting through core elephant habitats, electrical wires sagging across the forests killing elephants, making even their home unsafe for them to live in. Illegal high voltage fencing on the forest fringes is electrocuting elephants at an alarming rate, making it the single gravest threat to these giants. Now, the menacing plastic waste is also polluting the rivers and streams that run through the forests, even as the forest floor is becoming a garbage dumpsite, leading to elephant deaths.

The forest floor is becoming a garbage dumpsite, leading to elephant deaths

The mammoth garbage problem has provoked the ire of the Hon. Kerala High Court (KHC) Justices, prompting them to order the expert committee to speed up the restoration of elephant and wildlife corridors, while finding ways to remove the mounting garbage on the forest fringes. The KHC also took direct aim at resorts that are putting up temporary tents inside the forest, compounding the dumping issue that poses serious risks to all wild animals.

In the final analysis, we can only hope that people are grasping the ultimate reality – whatever we do to the earth and its creatures will return to haunt us. If we dump garbage on elephant corridors, or cultivate crops on the forest fringes, or occupy their land, rest assured, elephants will show up. Let’s not pretend to be surprised when they enter villages. Humans are facilitating conditions that are drawing the elephants to their doorsteps. Therefore, it is incumbent upon humans to change their behaviours. Otherwise, we’ll see a repeat of the same story. As the saying goes, “Insanity is doing the same things over and over again, and expecting a different outcome.” The million-dollar question is, “what would it take for humans to learn and change?”

(The writer is an award-winning author, National Geographic Explorer, multi award-winning wildlife filmmaker, Founder Voice for Asian Elephants Society)

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