Man must give way to elephants, the Supreme Court said today while hearing cases relating to resorts built illegally inside wildlife corridors - stretches of forests connecting wildlife populations separated by human activities - in Tamil Nadu's Nilgiri Hills. In a powerful and potentially key observation that is likely to bring some cheer to activists, the court said "those living there (in the resorts) want to kill the elephant" and noted that "we are dealing with fragile eco-systems".
"The elephant is a gentleman... the elephant is big and powerful, but fragile. Those living there (in the resorts) want to kill the elephant. We are dealing with (a) fragile eco-system," the court observed, while also expressing worry about "...the kind of money that goes into poaching... see how rhinos are poached in Assam".
"Man must give way to elephants," a three-member bench headed by Chief Justice SA Bobde said, adding that it would pass final orders soon.
In its order today the top court reserved its verdict on petitions filed by owners of the resorts, but indicated it would appoint a three-member panel - to be headed by a retired High Court judge - to examine the issue and look into petitioners' grievances.
The petitioners, who include Bengali actor and former Rajya Sabha MP Mithun Chakraborty, had argued their resorts had been sealed despite having all permissions.
In August last year the Supreme Court ordered the sealing of resorts in the Nilgiris after the Collector submitted a report on alleged illegal constructions inside elephant corridors.
In 2011 the Madras High Court passed an order closing all resorts and illegal constructions in the Nilgiris elephant corridors. The state government issued an order to that effect too, but the resort owners had approached the top court and obtained a stay.
The original petition was filed by A Rangarajan in 1996; two PILs (public interest litigations) were filed by "Elephant" Rajendran and an NGO - Nilgiris Wildlife Protection - in 2007/08.
All three are now before the top court and are being heard together.
According to the World Wildlife Fund - for Nature (WWF), the Indian elephant is an endangered subspecies of the Asian elephant and is listed as "Endangered"; the most recent population estimates say there are no more than 25,000 left in the world.
Apart from being a cultural and religious icon, the Indian elephant plays an important role in maintaining the integrity of forest and grasslands. However, they face an array of threats to their existence, including habitat destruction and being hunted by ivory poachers.