For the gentle giant
Upholding a 2011 order by the Madras High Court on the Nilgiris elephant corridor, the Supreme Court this week affirmed the right of passage in favour of the animals. In the process, they also affirmed the order to shut down all resorts that are operating in the area.
The fight against human encroachment in protected ecosystems and, in this case, elephant corridors is not a new one or even limited to the Nilgiris. Across India, 101 such corridors have been estimated of which 70 per cent are known to be used every day by the elephants. For years, urbanisation has gradually encroached unto these corridors. Indeed, it has been noted that elephant paths as they are today have been formed as a result of the natural forest habitats of these elephants becoming easily fragmented by human encroachment. These corridors then become vital to the elephants that move around for seasonal foraging, shifting between different habitats, etc. These paths tend to vary in size and are sometimes even erratic in their layout with some of the smaller paths recorded at only a few hundred metres wide. This may seem to be a fair bit but it is important to note that these paths, in particular, the Nilgiris corridor sees high levels of activity by large numbers of elephants. While exact numbers are hard to determine, it was mentioned in the SC hearing that close to 18,000 elephants have come to Tamil Nadu for the monsoon season. Equally important to note is that elephants generally have large home ranges. A home range is defined as the area an animal inhabits which contains all the required resources for its survival and reproduction.
Encroachment upon such corridors generally has substantial negative effects on the local elephant population. As their home ranges are fragmented and the corridors become more erratic, the chances of elephants encroaching upon human settlements in return increases. This naturally leads to a rise in instances of human-elephant conflict. Such direct confrontations aside, urbanisation takes its toll on the elephants in other ways as well. A dumping ground in the Gudalur Municipality in the Nilgiris has been the site of major contention for many years now. Located close one of the elephant corridors, this dump yard attracts herds of elephants in the same way as it does packs of dogs. Drawn by pungent smells that they cannot ignore with their acute sense of smell, elephants are compelled to forage in the four-acre dump yard. In particular, the smell of jackfruit is particularly tempting for an elephant. The dump yard not only handles the waste generated by the nearby town but also the untreated hospital waste from nearby facilities. All of this meshed in with copious amounts of plastic, glass and metal. In such cases, elephant deaths and other long term health effects are par the course.
The focus of this decision, however, is the direction to seal or close down all commercial establishments that have cropped up alongside the corridor. This comes following a series of decisions that culminated in the 2018 order by the SC for sealing or closing 39 hotels and resorts near the corridor. It was a historic judgement that upheld the right of animals in a true sense against blind human interest. Not to mention that the animal itself was one that has been termed as the 'National Heritage Animal of India'. As this was expected to set a precedent for the time to come, naturally there was opposition. In this case, 32 petitioners representing the resort and private landowners in the area approached the Court to appeal against the decision. Actor Mithun Chakraborty was also one of such owners who had petitioned the case. The general nature of the arguments being made is that these resorts and establishments are part of an eco-tourism effort and as such cause no major harm to these animals. Additionally, many have claimed that these resorts provide valuable employment in the region and promote development.
With its latest decision, the SC has categorically denied such claims but has still decided to set up a three-member inquiry committee to look into the full list of concerns by the petitioners. It has, however, made its stand clear. This is not a matter of development, sustainable or otherwise. This is a matter of conserving an endangered species and 'man must make way for the elephant'. The SC order is expected to finally start offering legal protection to the elephants and their way of life but the matter is far from over, with a workable solution requiring more than an SC directive from above.