In May this year, a disturbing wildlife video from India began circulating on the Internet. It showed a dead elephant being carted off for an autopsy in a village in West Bengal in eastern India. The elephant had collapsed on a paddy field after reportedly coming in contact with an illegal electric fence. A crane truck awkwardly dragged the elephant upside down along a dirt road and a small crowd followed, taking pictures on cell phones. Burn marks were clearly visible on the elephant’s trunk.
Photo by Bikash Das
Wild elephants are electrocuted with startling regularity in India. According to the Wildlife Protection Society of India, there was a sharp uptick in 2016 with 43 elephants killed accidentally by damaged power lines or intentionally by illegal electric fences. In the southern state of Karnataka there were ten deaths in the last three six months alone. Karnataka is one of the states where electrocutions have overtaken poaching as a leading cause of unnatural death among elephants. “Every alternate day you hear about an electrocution case,” said K. Vijay, a conservationist with the Ooty-based Nilgiri Wildlife & Environment Association, shortly after a mother and two calves were killed by a fence on a coconut farm in neighboring Tamil Nadu earlier this year.
Asian elephants are an endangered species. But not everyone views them in that light. For some farmers, elephants are a menace because they can demolish a crop within a matter of hours. Wealthy landowners protect their harvest with power fences equipped with transformers that deliver a safe buzz of electricity to deter the animal. But small farmers who can’t afford commercial fences tend to improvise. A “homemade” electric fence is often just a single wire strung out on the periphery of a farm illegally connected to an overhead power line. Because they lack a transformer, illegal fences deliver a full blast of 220 volts of alternating current, strong enough to fell an elephant on the spot.
On paper, there are stringent laws protecting India’s “heritage” animal. Under the Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972, killing an elephant carries a prison sentence up to seven years. But in reality, the system is prone to “influence,” according to one conservationist. A conviction in an elephant electrocution case is extremely rare.
The Nilgiri Mountains in southern India are the heart of elephant country. The single largest population of Asian elephants, numbering about 6,000, wanders the lower slopes of the picturesque “blue mountains.” A unique ecosystem of high-altitude forests and grasslands known as sholas have sustained large herbivores in the area for centuries. But these traditional grazing grounds have been dwindling for years as forests gave way to tea plantations, farms and later vacation homes. Satellite photos of elephant habitats in the Nilgiris shows a 14 percent decline in tree cover between 1973-2004. During that same period, farms and real estate grew 200 percent.
The terraced slopes of the Nilgiris produce a rich bounty of vegetables. Bunches of bright-orange carrots are a common sight on roads snaking up the mountains. Known as Ooty carrots, they are popular all over southern India. One of the main growing areas is Sholur, a cluster of farming villages that overlook a valley crisscrossed with some of the most important migratory trails for Asian elephants. When it gets dry in the lower slopes, the animals will often hike up 23,000 feet to the farms where food and water are plentiful. Sometimes these excursions end in tragedy.
Two years ago, a tusker collapsed near a carrot field in one of the Sholur villages. It was the farmer’s son who discovered the hulking carcass on a cold January morning in 2015, shortly after the winter harvest. “I wasn’t sure if it was sleeping or dead,” R. Vignesh recalls. The animal had been a frequent if unwelcome visitor to the farm for the last five years. “It really enjoyed the carrots,” he said. “We tried driving it away by bursting firecrackers or making loud noises but nothing worked. It did a lot of damage.” According to Vignesh, the elephant devoured close to $15,500 worth of carrots every year. But he insists there was no foul play: “We think it had a heart attack.”
The death of a tusker is a serious conservation issue as it threatens to upset the delicate gender balance in the wild, already skewed by years of poaching. After the elephant was discovered, the Tamil Nadu Forest Department searched the farm and discovered a length of electrical wire wrapped around two sticks—strongly indicating an electric fence was used and later dismantled. Two farm workers were arrested for attempting to conceal evidence. Autopsy photos show the elephant’s trunk had prominent black marks and the case file noted that, “electrical shock was suspected.” The animal was cremated partly out of respect (the Hindu god Ganesha is part elephant) but also to ensure the tusks, which were four and a half feet long, did not fall into the hands of ivory smugglers.
The autopsy of an electrocuted elephant is not for the faint of heart. Dr. B. Ramakrishnan, a wildlife biologist with the Government Arts College in Ooty, has seen his fair share as an expert witness. He confirms that burn marks where the elephant makes contact with the wire are a telltale sign that the animal has been subject to lethal levels of electricity. In young male elephants, especially those experiencing the testosterone surge known as musth, the electrocution triggers ejaculation and a release of seminal fluid. When the carcass is opened, says Ramakrishnan, “the heart is black” and blood in the arteries has congealed. The autopsy report is a key piece of evidence in a trial. As of early this year, the autopsy report in the Sholur case had not been turned in. A local lawyer says electrocution cases languish for lack of evidence and predicts that this case too, will likely “still be pending” after five years.
Electrocution deaths in the Nilgiris have come down since the Sholur incident, which was part of a cluster of four deaths that took place about three years ago on the periphery of Mudumalai National Park. A crackdown by the forest department and better vigilance has helped. But where forests merge into private farms, the problem continues. A senior forest official acknowledged: “We have our limitations. We cannot look into 100 percent of the areas.”
A long-term solution that conservationists have successfully advocated for are elephant corridors. There are currently 101 of these wildlife passages in India. They were set aside in part to help herds migrate to new forests should their grazing ground get depleted. Adult elephants need about 300 pounds of forage a day and practically spend all their waking hours eating. “They should not be pocketed. If they have no access to their habitat they become destructive and move into agricultural areas,” said Dr. Ramakrishnan. “I followed one of these elephants around. During the day he slept and was in fact snoring in the forest. At 6 p.m. he would start raiding.”
The corridors have become a flashpoint in the Nilgiris. Nestled in them are villages like Vazhaithottam (translation: banana plantation), home to farmers like M. Narasimhan who gave up growing bananas because they attract elephants. “If they see green they come,” he said. To protect his crop of rice, millets and vegetables, Narasimhan has put up an electric fence with a transformer, the safety feature. “None of us wants to kill an elephant. We cry when they die,” he said. Even legal fences are banned in the corridor because they interfere with the elephant migration but Narasimhan went to court to keep his in place. Without it, he argues his crop would be ravaged.
There are, however, some hopeful examples of coexistence too. In the elephant corridors around Mudumalai National Park, for instance, five-ton tuskers share space with farmers, hunter-gatherer tribes, tourists, cows and roosters in what ecologists call a “matrix habitat,” mixed spaces with forests and farmland. For the most part they all get along and locals have been doing their bit to prevent conflict. Tribal farmers in the Nilgiris avoid planting crops that attract elephants and some estate owners open their gates to allow animals to pass through their lands writes Tarsh Thekaekara, a conservationist with the Shola Trust.
Lethal electric fences are a jarring reminder that not everyone in the matrix habitat believes in peaceful coexistence. Yet without it the continued survival of the largest land animal on the planet would be in serious jeopardy.