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ELEPHANTS IN THE MIST

The early morning mist rising off the Kabini Reservoir gives the land a surreal look. The sun has not risen yet, and the grassy banks of the reservoir are calm. A dark shape looms out of the bamboo on the fringes of the forest; the mist swirls around as it makes it's way slowly down to the water's edge. The elephant has spent the night browsing on the juicy bamboo leaves and needs a drink of water before retreating into the cool depths of the forest. The rising sun soon bums away the last tendrils of mist, beginning another hot day at the Nagarahole National Park in Karnataka.

In a country with a population exceeding a billion people, there is scant place for an animal as large as an elephant to survive. Once spanning most of the Indian subcontinent, elephant habitats have shrunk to a few scattered forests in northern, north-eastern and southern India. The healthiest population, by far, exists in the diverse forests of south India. Ranging from dry teak to tropical evergreen, these forests are home to about 15 per cent of the world's Asiatic elephant population.

Elephant society is typically headed by the eldest and most experienced female in the herd, known as the matriarch. The herd consists of females, their calves and sub-adult animals. Bull elephants are driven out of the herd when they reach maturity and typically live solitarily, away from the herd. The matriarch knows, through years of experience, which areas will have food in a certain season, the location of water during the dry season and places where the herd will be safe.

Over the centuries, herds have followed rigid migration routes that take them through areas of optimum food and water during the course of the year. These routes are ingrained in the matriarch's memory. But, in modern times, these routes have been fragmented by man-made obstructions, such as coffee plantations and human settlements. As a result, elephants are increasingly coming into direct conflict with man. The fallout is human casualties by elephants desperate for food and water, and elephant deaths due to poisoning and electrocution. In a land dominated by a large and hungry human population, elephants are seen as pests and have little local support.

Despite a bleak prospect, there is hope for these gentle giants. In south India, the elephant has a fighting chance of survival. That chance lies in the Nagarahole National Park, on the border between northern Kerala and Karnataka. This park is a part of what is perhaps the largest area of unbroken elephant habitat in India, known as the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve. This stretch of forest, covering in excess of 2,000 square kilometres, comprises of the Nagarahole National Park and Bandipur Tiger Reserve in Karnataka, Wynaad Sanctuary in Kerala and the Mudumalai Sanctuary in Tamil Nadu, along with adjacent protected forests.

For the Nagarahole elephants, the migration routes go through either Kerala in the south or the Brahmagiri Sanctuary in the west and north. These migration corridors, which are still somewhat intact, allow the elephants a relatively safe passage between lush monsoon forests in the hills and the grassy banks and abundant water of the Kabini Reservoir in the summer. This reservoir, which forms the southern boundary of the park, provides sustenance for a whole host of animals, including elephants, during the hot and dry summer months.

Every year, around November, the waters of the Kabini Reservoir are gradually drained to provide irrigation to the farmers in the catchments areas around the nearby city of Mysore. The resultant mudflats are rich in silt washed down from the Western Ghats and by the time the forest dries up in April, there is an abundance of fresh, succulent grass to sustain the elephants. It is perhaps a unique phenomenon, where a man-made reservoir, that has drowned some 25 sq kms of forest, has actually benefited the wildlife of the area. Indeed, the seasonal movements of the Nagarahole herds are intrinsically dependent on the annual drainage cycle of the reservoir.

By the beginning of March, the now lush banks of the reservoir start to fill up with elephants. As summer advances, more and more herds descend from the hills to partake in his annual feast of grass. This is also a social aggregation for the elephants as matriarchs meet each other and the meadows echo with the rumbles, squeaks and trumpets of elephant vocalizations. Calves that were born the previous year are now old enough to eat the soft, nutritious grass and they too get a rare chance to play, tugging at each other's trunks and tails and butting one another. Younger calves stay close to their mothers or gambol playfully with their elder siblings. Adult elephants are remarkably tolerant of their young. The big bull elephants that are normally solitary mingle with the herds, getting a chance to mate and thereby pass on their genes. Conflicts occasionally occur, as is wont to happen in any society, but they do not last long and peace soon returns to the vast sea of grazing elephants.

Towards the end of May, the grass has worn away, leaving behind short, dry stubs. These too are kicked up by the elephants, exposing bare, dusty patches of soil. Soon the rains will come and the reservoir will fill up once again and it will be time for the matriarchs to lead their herds back into the cool, green heights of the Brahmagiri hills. The lone bull elephants remain behind, to feed on the bamboo and fresh sprout of leaves in the forest. The great elephant congregation dwindles to just a few individuals.

While the Nagarahole National Park is a safe haven for elephants, most other reserves are not. Killed for their ivory and continually persecuted by man in a land where they are revered as a god and were once allowed to roam free, these animals are now regarded as pests. Elephants arriving on the banks of the Kabini frequently carry the wounds and scars of shot-gun pellets, fired at them by the irate owners of coffee plantations, over whose land the elephants have trampled through. Many are blinded by pellets and killed or maimed by crude electric fences connected to high-tension cables.

However, even as Nagarahole continues to harbour healthy elephant populations, the traditional migration corridors between this park and other areas are being disturbed. As a result, the herds are increasingly becoming an isolated population, which has led to inbreeding, making them vulnerable to disease, and brought them into repeated conflict with humans. Protected areas such as Nagarahole alone are not sufficient for conserving elephants. There is an urgent need for more such areas that can be connected by viable, undisturbed corridors. A sustained and dedicated effort is required to prevent these beautiful, innocent giants from disappearing into extinction.

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