Right of Passage

The Mysore Ditch connecting the Eastern and Western Ghats in Karnataka, arguably the most important corridor for the single largest population of Asian Elephants in the world is fast turning into a battlefield between conservationists and the tourism industry.

By Aniruddha Mookerjee

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A little inside the V-line of the Indian peninsula hangs a green necklace with the two strands made up of Eastern and Western Ghats. It contains varied forest habitat teeming with life with some of the world's richest bio-diversity hot spots. At the narrowest point on this V lies a deep gorge that some dispirited British geologist eons ago named the "Mysore Ditch." Through this runs a placid river called Moyar, which becomes uncrossable only during the monsoons. This is the meeting point of the two of the oldest mountain ranges and two of India's most spectacular protected forests - the Bandipur National Park (BNP) in Karnataka, and the Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary(MWS) in Tamil Nadu.

This is typical Veerappan country where no industrialist in the right frame of mind would have ever set foot. However, a year ago, this bandit, and "conservationist by default," was killed and the area witnessed a flood of business interest. Today this narrow strip has become a battlefield of sorts for conservationists and the tourism industry, and not without reason. For this patch of land is the only point where the world's single largest population of Asian elephants can cross from one habitat to the other. This ditch is key to their family ties, their genetic health and the only link to their traditional highways of travel that predate man. As the king of Asian Elephant biologists, Raman Sukumar, whose team identified this corridor, will tell you: this is one of three corridors in India that elephants could literally die for. Scientists named it the Kaniyanpura Corridor after a village of the same name where the narrowest point was located.

Unfortunately, this narrow strip of real estate also makes the wildlife tourism industry salivate. For here is land where they can make big bucks with relative ease. All they need to do is hem this corridor on the Karnataka side with resorts, and the tourists will have ringside views of a centuries-old elephant rite of passage. The land is cheap, for poor soil and crop depredation by wild animals have already made agriculture a losing proposition. And the revenue officials are only too happy to change land use for some gratuities.

But when did the situation begin to change, or for that matter, when did it change ? No one seems to be able to put a date to this, although the data exists. Some scientists who have worked in that area seem to think that even 100 years ago that corridor was just a narrow strip in terms of ownership. But human settlements were not that large and the forests adjoining the gorge were broad. Agriculture had not yet started pushing in and the tree cover on that land was thick, food abundant and elephants, and other wild animals, criss-crossed with ease what they thought was rightfully theirs.

By the turn of this century, which is just six years ago, we were looking at strip that was just 50 metres wide at its narrowest. Forests had been cleared for agriculture, along with encroachments. It was at this point that Sukumar and the organisation that he headed, the Asian Elephant Research and Conservation Centre (AERCC) spearheaded the campaign for widening this corridor. It was on his advice that the Government of India gave the Karnataka Government funds and the corridor was widened by nearly 500 m through the acquisition of revenue land adjacent to the national park boundary. This action by the government was hailed as visionary and unprecedented in Asia and went on provide a model for similar initiatives in a country where wildlife habitat always seems to be compromised for development and political gains.

Around the time Sukumar's team was running around to protect the corridor, the former President of India, Dr Sanjeeva Reddy's grandson, Sreekant Reddy, a businessman from Andhra Pradesh, saw the potential of this area and brought 17.5 acres of land abutting the Kaniyanpura village. Reddy's company, called Karnataka Wildlife Resorts Pvt Ltd (KWRPL), acquired permissions for commercial use with a requisite NOC for a 50-room resort. Construction started six years ago on cottages, however, a large loan that was expected did not materialise and the work was halted. The site, with six half-constructed brick and concrete single-storied buildings, which was surrounded by an electrified fence (now inoperative), thus remained largely abandoned except for a site supervisor and two watchmen.

Early last year another company called Wilderness Resorts Private Limited (WRPL) acquired the adjoining approximately 17 acres on the south of KWRPL property from three individuals including one Lakke Gowda (now deceased, but sons reside in Ooty), for a seven acre piece with the intention of starting a resort.

WRPL is a collaboration of an IT entrepreneur, T.G. Ramesh (a co-founder of companies like Quintant Services and Banglore Labs, popularly known as "Tiger"), the HRB Group led by H.B. Jairaj (who also owns the Cicada Group and has interests in many businesses including pisciculture and exports, etc) and PM Ventures, a fund started by Phaneesh Murthy (formerly of Infosys in the US, where he had to resign following his alleged involvement in a sexual harassment case, which was settled out of court).

The Kaniyanpura resort was meant to be a part of WRPL's three-property initiative in Karnataka, with one called Kapila Resorts on the banks of Kabini in Nagarhole already working, and with ones in Bandipur and Bhadra on the anvil. This was a part of a $ 10 million, phase one of the company's plans with nine more such resorts around the country in phase two.

Lakke Gowda, however, had already signed a sale agreement with Shrikant Reddy for this seven-acre piece. Advantaging this loophole, a conservation-minded individual, Vishnu Narain, used a power of attorney from KWRPL, to obtain a stay on the sale, and construction on the property.

However, late last year following an amicable settlement between Reddy and Ramesh, the latter acquired KWRPL, and the former withdrew the case against Lakke Gowda, thus consolidating the two pieces of land. This 35 acre property lies right on the edge of the corridor with noise, lights and construction in full swing.

On morning of 02 February this year, we went for a walk in that area. We crossed the Elephant Protection Trench, which was less than 500 metres from the boundary of the property and walked in a straight line towards the Moyar gorge and found elephants within 200 metres. We skirted them and came back in a curve finding signs of tiger, leopards and a variety of ungulates on this land that abuts the resort property.

We then came back to the resort land and found that two feet wide and three feet deep foundations had been dug for a four feet high boundary wall that would be topped with an electrified chain-link fence with watch-towers and flood-lights. In a formal report to the Wildlife Trust of India we listed out the following impacts:

  • 1 Any construction on the boundary of such a narrow and active elephant corridor is bound to disturb and affect terrestrial (surface) animal movement. The perimeter wall with such a deep foundation will deter fossorial (underground) movement as well.

  • 2 Any large resort of the kind being envisaged is bound to alter the land and soundscape of the area leading to animal disorientation and disturbance.

  • 3 The increase in vehicular traffic, initially due to construction and thereafter due to the tourist inflow, will lead to pollution and noise.

  • 4 Any large-scale hospitality industry activity, however well managed, leads to issues of pollution, waste disposal and toxicity.

  • 5 It will lead to increased opportunities for human-animal conflict situations.

  • 6 It will set a precedent for further development along the corridor.

"The corridor, which was just 50 metres wide in places, was widened to 500 metres a few years ago by acquiring contiguous revenue land abutting the strip. Such resorts or intrusive commercial activity should not be allowed to destroy the viability and functionality of a crucial corridor that took years of effort to consolidate."

On the other hand, the company very rightly says that they have broken no law. They have legally acquired land, paid for the change of land use, and got the required NOCs. If this land abuts the corridor, it is not their fault. Wildlife tourism is all about taking guests as close to the animals as possible and if they have done so legally, what is the hullabaloo about.

In this self-righteous attempt at hiding behind the law the company and its promoters are completely ignoring the rules of engaging wildlife, which their industry has framed. If in an attempt to see the show, you drive the show away, there may not be much left to see.

Ultimately, the responsibility lies with the policy makers and the government, who have failed to formulate clear guidelines regarding the use of land flanking such ecologically fragile zones. Any delay will seal the fate of 6500 elephants oblivious of what awaits them.

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