Cyanide kills elephants

By Deepa Kozhisseri
Published: Tuesday 31 March 2009

It could have come from plants, thinks Karnataka

Four wild elephants, found dead in Nanjangud, 25 km from Mysore, in November 2008, died of cyanide poisoning. Chemical analysis ordered by the Karnataka forest department has confirmed this. The deaths made the high court take notice for the first time of the increasing number of unnatural deaths among elephants in the state. In December it ordered the state forest department to constitute a committee to look into the matter.

"The chemical analysis showed traces of cyanide, possibly from a plant source which has not yet been identified. This is not the first case of pachyderms dying due to cyanide poisoning," said T Gopal, a retired veterinarian from the Institute of Animal Health and Veterinary Biologicals. Raman Suku-mar, chairperson, Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science said preliminary tests showed the presence of cyanide.Further tests are required to detect the amount of the chemical. Nothing can be said conclusively about the source of poison, Sukumar added.

Sukumar and Gopal are part of the Karnataka government committee that includes botanists, veterinarians and wildlife researchers. While Sukumar is looking into habitat issues in the committee, Gopal is investigating the veterinary aspects, including causes of death. The committee submitted its report to the state government last month.

Nanjangud lies close to Nagarhole and Bandipur national parks which have about 1,000 elephants each. These elephants stray into the fields looking for food.

Habitat management
The government records show a sharp increase in the unnatural deaths among Karnataka's wild elephants 2007 onwards (see graph The death toll). The committee report emphasizes on reducing the human-elephant conflict mainly by managing the habitat. This would include increasing food availability for the pachyderms with adequate waterholes, erecting barriers to prevent straying and working with villagers to create squads to chase the elephants off the fields. "We need a more detailed assessment of the landscape. Invasive lantana shrubs, for instance, have spread following the drought in recent years. It has been observed, with the growth of lantana, grass does not grow to the extent it should," said Sukumar.

Measures like electric fences and trenches have not worked either. "Trenches do not work in heavy rains and fences are cut down to let cattle in. Besides, they are not maintained properly," said Sukumar. The number of cases of electrocution has shot up in the last two years. He also stressed on the need to fill up vacancies, a concern shared by chief conservator (wildlife) Anur Reddy. "The posts of forest guards have been vacant for close to 10 years. These have to be filled up as there is an urgent requirement for field staff," said Reddy.

Karnataka has about 50,000 elephants
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The report suggests using old railway tracks as permanent barriers. The forest department wants to include three or four abandoned railway tracks as fences. They are exploring a stronger fence by cutting up the tracks in sections and erecting them one on top of another. The idea is to come up with a design to keep the elephants within the forest boundaries and restrict the entry of cattle, Sukumar said.

Chamarajnagar, Mysore, Coorg, Hassan and areas adjoining Bandipur national park are high-conflict zones in the state. A few months ago a herd of 40 elephants went on the rampage inthe fields in Nugu near Bandipur. "Elephants come to the fields when jackfruit ripens and during harvesting of banana and paddy. But we find it difficult to stop them," said Reddy.

The government is considering repeating West Bengal's experiment to track the movement of elephants through radio telemetry. This will helpby sending early warning signals to farmers.

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