It was the end of a long hot day in the Kagneri reserve forest of Sakleshpur, Karnataka. As dusk neared, the relentless summer sun slowly began to ease. A gurgling forest stream glittered in the diffused light as several Pongamia pinnata trees that lined the banks of the stream swayed in response to a cool gust of air. Satisfied with the day’s work ─ I had just finished sampling a particularly remote stretch of the river ─ I knelt and dipped my head in to the stream to cool off. As I packed my fishing net and field notes in to my backpack and prepared to leave, Sagar, my field assistant suggested that we take a different route back ─ a shortcut!

As an ecologist, I was part of a research team that was studying how the operation of small hydropower projects (SHPs) affected freshwater fish. Little did we know that SHPs affected more than just fish! The study site was the Yettinahole River and its several tributaries ─ Nayakanahole, Kadumanehole and Hongadhallahole ─ which originate in the dense evergreen forests of Sakleshpur, a coffee growing town in the Hassan district of Karnataka. Yettinahole, which becomes Kempuhole as it enters the Dakshina Kannada district, is an important tributary of the Gundia River. Further down, Gundia, through Kumaradhara river, feeds in to Nethravathi, a major west-flowing river of Karnataka. Nethravathi flows past the bustling port city of Mangaluru, and eventually meets the Arabian Sea. Referred to as the ‘lifeline’, Nethravathi is the backbone of agricultural and fisheries-based livelihoods of Mangaluru.

A tributary of Yettinahole in the dense evergreen forests of Sakleshpur.

The upper reaches of the Gundia River basin including the forests that birth Yettinahole are part of the Western Ghats. With an average annual rainfall between 3500 – 4700 mm, these hilly regions are characterised by tropical evergreen, semi-evergreen, riparian and ‘shola’ forests. Trees endemic to the Western Ghats such as Eleocarpus tuberculatus, Vateria indica, Canarium strictum and Artocarpus hirsutus are commonly found here. The rivers that drain these forests harbor exceptional biodiversity. About 28 species of fish are found here including the critically endangered and the endemic Wayanad Mahseer (Neolissochilus wynaadensis). Several species of frogs such as the Kemphole Night Frog (Nyctibatrachus kempholeyensis) are unique to this region.

The rivers of Western Ghats originate in the ‘shola’ forests ─ high elevation grasslands interspersed with stunted trees.

Wayanad Mahseer prefers fast flowing rapids and riffles in high elevation streams.

An hour in to the ‘shortcut’, Sagar and I found ourselves in the middle of a cane thicket. After haplessly following the trail for what seemed like forever, we hit upon a small clearing in the forest that appeared to be a part of a much wider trail. A large wild mango tree stood near the clearing replete with fruits. Surrounded by cane on all sides, the trail almost looked like a tunnel that pushed deeper in to the forest. Minutes later, we came across another wild mango tree. We gorged on as many mangoes as we could in what can only be explained as an act of gluttony. Further down the worming trail we chanced upon another mango tree. Just when it felt like the trail was leading us nowhere, we heard a reassuring sound ─ the gentle rippling of the river. Our shortcut landed us only a few hundred meters away from where we had started but we were relieved to be back near the stream.

Many sections of the river are banked by dense growth of Calamus spp. and Ochlandra spp. The vegetation within the river is dominated by Homonia riperia and sedges.

As we approached the stream, we caught a whiff of something musty. Relief turned into shock when we saw right in front our eyes, a gigantic pile of dung with several mango seeds in it. The dung was relatively fresh and we could see large, unmistakable footprints on the sandy river bank. “Aane (elephant, in Kannada)”, Sagar said in a panic-stricken whisper. It dawned on us that the tunnel-shaped trail was in fact frequented by the elephants to move through the cane thicket from one fruiting mango tree to the next!

Dung and footprints are unmistakable signs of elephant presence.

As the summer intensified, signs indicating elephant activity ─ dung piles, footprints and peeled barks ─ became frequent, especially near the river. Riparian forests here seem like ideal refugia for elephants ─ Cane (Ochlandra spp. and Calamus spp.) and fruiting trees such as wild mango (Mangifera indica) grow profusely while the river itself provides much needed water and cool shade during the summer heat. In some sections of the river, we would routinely find footprints on adjacent banks of the river suggesting that the elephants prefer these sections to cross the river. In fact, riparian forests are known to constitute crucial corridors that facilitate movement of elephants. Moreover, the elephants themselves are probably integral to the sustenance of these riparian forests by acting as long-distance seed dispersers.

Travancore Tortoise (Indotestudo travancorica), a tortoise endemic to the Western Ghats. They seem to prefer marshy areas near stream banks.

Drying puddles of water and exposed gravel/sand are preferred by the butterflies for mud-puddling. Seen here are Painted Sawtooth (Prioneris sita), Five-bar Swordtail (Graphium antiphates), Blue Bottle (Graphium sarpedon) and Red Helen (Papilio helenus).

Sagar, though, would balk every time we had to sample near the cane thickets. His irrational fear of elephants had a good reason ─ Maranahalli, his village in Sakleshpur that abuts the forest, experiences severe conflict with elephants. From crop raids to fatal encounters resulting in human deaths, villagers in Maranahalli live in perpetual fear of elephants, so much so that some farmers have completely abandoned cultivating crops like paddy to minimize conflict.

Towards the end of our research, we found out that Maranahalli’s conflict with elephants is fairly recent. Most of the villagers opined that their misfortune with the elephants started only a decade or so ago, around 2005. Coincidentally, that is around the same time, the first SHP was commissioned in the region. In fact, our research showed that the number of compensations claimed for crop damage by elephants skyrocketed to an average of 2030 claims per year between 2005 – 2013, during which a total of 4 SHPs were commissioned, from an average of 248 claims per year between 1999 and 2004. And every year during which a new SHP was commissioned, the number of compensation claims only increased.

But what could possibly explain the link between increasing human-elephant conflict and the growth of these SHPs? The answer may lie in the Asian Elephant’s ecology and how SHPs alter forest and rivers.

An adult Asian Elephant consumes more than 100 kilos of forage including grass, leaves, tree bark, roots and fruits. These highly social large-bodied mammals are known to have an excellent sense of direction using which they resourcefully navigate the forests in search of forage and water. Young elephants accompany experienced adults and inherit these skills. Elephant home ranges usually span a few hundred km2and they use well-established routes and corridors, such as riparian forests, to navigate within and across forest patches. The forests of Sakleshpur are one such critical elephant corridor since they are the only connecting link between the Pushpagiri in the south and the Kudremukh wildlife sanctuary in the north.

Given the multitude of rivers and steep terrains, SHPs are promoted in the Western Ghats as a ‘green’ means of power generation. However, the construction of SHPs involves a significant amount of blasting, building of new approach roads through dense forests for ferrying construction materials, increased human presence and vehicular traffic. The reservoirs of these SHPs submerge several hectares of riparian forests and dry up several kilometers of the river immediately below the dam. Once the SHPs start generating power, the water released from the turbine creates wildly fluctuating water levels downstream.

An aerial view of a SHP in the Western Ghats.

Now, imagine being an elephant in an increasingly disturbing patch of forest, having to negotiate a novel labyrinth of dams, pipelines and roads, deal with inaccessibility to resources by foraging farther and wider, and risk coming in to contact with humans or villages every day! The fragmentation of forests and rivers by the SHPs must surely have a role to play in bringing the elephants and humans in to close proximity, thereby fueling conflict.

By the time I finished my fieldwork, another SHP was commissioned barely a few hundred meters from the cane thicket. SHPs in India are currently exempt from environmental impact assessments and conducting public hearings. Recently, Yettinahole and all its tributaries are being dammed for a large-scale drinking water project which involves diversion of water from Sakleshpur to the water-parched districts of Kolar and Chikkballapur in Karnataka. Needless to say, these reckless developments are mounting severe pressures not just on elephants but also on the myriad creatures which call these forests and rivers their home.

My tryst with Sakleshpur gave me a deeper understanding of the intricate links between forests and rivers, and the biodiversity they sustain. I also realized that these links are fragile and that any perturbations to the delicate balance of nature has far ranging repercussions for the denizens of the forest as well as to the local communities who live next to it. While I am deeply concerned about the fate of these imperiled pachyderms, for now, I am just content that I have something in common with them – an appetite for wild mangoes.