A strong political will is needed secure the 16 elephant corridors in Tamil Nadu, including five inter-State ones to ensure connectivity between habitats. Enough research has been done. Now is the time for action

With the Supreme Court having delivered its landmark verdict upholding the 2011 Madras High Court order notifying the Sigur elephant corridor in The Nilgiris, the future of wildlife using the landscape, particularly elephants, is secure.

In its judgment, the court summarily rejected the contentions of the appellants, the owners of resorts operating in the area, that the State government has no statutory power for creation/recognition of new corridors. It did not find merit in the argument.

The court also did not find fault with the recommendations of the High Court-appointed Expert Committee, and rejected the second limb of the appellants’ submission challenging the scientific accuracy of the committee’s report claiming that the single corridor identified was at odds with scientific publications.

Illegal resorts

During the proceedings, the Supreme Court was informed that large-scale construction was under way in the Sigur corridor. It directed The Nilgiris Collector to prepare and present a plan of action. Collector J. Innocent Divya submitted that all 39 resorts were operating illegally as 27 of them had obtained approvals only for residential purposes and 12 had not obtained any approval at all. Based on the court’s directions, the resorts were sealed.

A total of 309 buildings in the 39 resorts, which are located within the 22-km-long and 1.5-km-wide elephant corridor.

“All the resorts and buildings in the Sigur corridor should be demolished soon in the wake of the Supreme Court order,” says A.J.T. Johnsingh, former dean of the Wildlife Institute of India. “If those buildings are not demolished, they will create further problems as they can turn hideouts for poachers and anti-social elements. Similarly, barbed wire fences and similar materials used for safety around the buildings should also be removed to make the area safe for the wildlife,” he notes.

Importance of corridors

The Supreme Court judgment explains: The elephants are a keystone species because their nomadic behaviour is immensely important to the environment. Herds of roaming elephants are landscape architects, facilitate seed dispersal, provide nutrition to plants and animals, are part of the forest food chain, and they have an umbrella effect.

Elephant corridors allow them to continue their nomadic mode of survival, despite shrinking forest cover, by facilitating travel between distinct forest habitats. The corridors are often narrow and linear patches that establish connectivity across habitats. Also, elephants are genetically programmed by nature to never inbreed within their birth family and thus need to move around between gene pools to reproduce.

In today’s world where habitat fragmentation has become increasingly common, these corridors play a crucial role in sustaining wildlife by reducing the impact of habitat isolation. In their absence, elephants would be unable to move freely. It would eventually lead to the local extinction of elephants, a species widely revered in India. To ensure wild elephants’ future, elephant corridors must be protected.

Significance of Sigur

According to Wildlife Trust of India (WTI), the Brahmagiri-Nilgiris-Eastern Ghats population has about 6,300-6,500 elephants, distributed over 12,000 sq km of habitat. A number of the Protected Areas, including Bandipur, Nagarahole, Mudumalai, Wayanad, Biligirirangan Swamy Temple, Kaveri and Brahmagiri, fall within the area. The diversity in vegetation, ranging from dry thorn forest to the montane shola grasslands, makes this one of the best elephant reserves in the country with a demographically and genetically viable population. This is the largest population of elephants in the country, and possibly in Asia as well.

The Sigur plateau connects the Western and Eastern Ghats. The WTI’s book, Right of Passage-Elephant Corridors of India published first in 2006 lists four corridors in the Sigur plateau. The Expert Committee, in its report to the Madras High Court, made them into one major corridor.

A long, legal battle

The battle to protect the corridor has continued since 1972, when noted conservationist, E.R.C. Davidar, who was then the secretary of the Nilgiri Wildlife and Environment Association (NWEA), began studying elephant corridors in Gudalur, Kallar and the Sigur plateau.

“Soon afterwards, the corridor became a source of intense study, with five elephants being radio-collared. Of the five, telemetric data from three gave researchers a general outline of the entire extent of the corridor,” says N. Mohanraj, a Nilgiris-based conservationist.

Conservationists say that protecting the corridor will also ensure contiguous habitats for other endangered species of wildlife that inhabit the Sigur plateau, including the Asian king vulture, white-rumped vulture, the striped hyena, tigers, black buck and four-horned antelope.

M. Santhanaraman, a lawyer who represented the Nilgiri Wildlife and Environment Association in the High Court in support of the establishment of the corridor, says, “The State and Central governments have been consistently in favour of declaring the corridor for the last 12 years. The verdict of the Supreme Court reinforces the faith of conservationists in the judiciary and proves yet again that the courts in India are custodians of forests and wildlife. In line with this judgment, a comprehensive legislation should be enacted to secure all the elephant corridors across the country.”

“While seven of the 88 corridors identified in 2005 were found impaired in 2017, we identified 20 new corridors taking the number of elephant corridors in the country to 101. Disturbances caused by human interventions in the existing corridors are forcing elephants to use alternative routes between two habitats, creating new corridors. If they use the alternative route for five years, then it can be considered a new corridor,” says K. Ramkumar, an elephant expert from Wildlife Trust of India and a member of Asian Elephant Specialist Group, IUCN Species Survival Commission.

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