High water level pushes elephant herd to a small forest patch

Around 30 wild elephants have been forced to remain in a forest patch of 2,080 hectare named Pethikuttai of Sirumugai forest range of Coimbatore Forest Division for more than six months as they are unable to move to the lower portions of the Nilgiris eastern slope due to high levels of water in Bhavani Sagar reservoir.

The small landscape lacks adequate fodder for the foraging needs of the giant family consisting of mostly females, calves and sub-adults.

Though Bhavani Sagar Dam is situated in Erode district, its water spread area stretches upto 20 km covering portions of Sirumugai forest range in Coimbatore district. Pethikuttai reserve forest of Coimbatore Division and Vilamnundy reserve forest of Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve (STR) in Erode district are separated from the Nilgiris eastern slope when water level in the reservoir increases.

According to District Forest Officer D. Venkatesh, the water level in the reservoir has now crossed 100 feet against the full reservoir level of 120 feet. The area surrounding the reservoir is an important junction for elephants as herds from Wayanad, Bandipur, the Nilgiris, STR, Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple Tiger Reserve arrive or return between February and June every year.

Many herds visit Pethikuttai reserve forests of 2,080 hectare as part of the annual grazing range for about three to four months from March to June, after which they return to their respective habitats.

“The elephants prefer to stay in Pethikuttai in the dry season due to availability of water in the reservoir. But the habitat is not very suitable to support elephants during summer as the vegetation is dry. The vegetation in the southern and eastern banks of the reservoir is scrub jungle,” he said.

As fodder availability is very poor in Pethikuttai during summer and the presence of hundreds of spotted deer also reduces the quality vegetation considerably.

According to the Forest Department, around 30 elephants that are now camping in Pethikuttai were forced to remain in the area as they did not move to the Nilgiris eastern slope by swimming around 90 metres across the reservoir.

With seven out of the 20 elephants died in Coimbatore Forest Division died in Pethikuttai, the Forest Department suspects that the casualties could be directly linked to the limited availability of fodder during summer.

Mr. Venkatesh said that the Department is currently studying forest area, vegetation and habitat assessments, health of elephants, paths available in the forest, assessment of water level and analysis of water samples from the reservoir.

With the assistance of the WWF India, 30 camera traps have been fixed to monitor the elephant population. Elephant trackers from Anamalai Tiger Reserve were also deployed to study the herd to identify whether any individual had health issues. The Department is also using drones periodically to assess the general status of elephants in Pethikuttai.

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