World Elephant Day: Pitted against humans, pachyderms in Assam battle insensitive crowd, constraints of tiny living space

  • Assam is no stranger to the sad syndrome where the fight for supremacy often ends with either the death of human beings or elephants.

  • What is worrisome is that the geographical zone of the man-elephant conflict in Assam is only increasing every day.

  • Aaranyak has played a fundamental role in identifying conflict zones and resolve them through a blend of research and mitigation in Assam and the North East.

"But there were no more elephants to come"

This is the last line of the nursery rhyme Ten Little Elephants. Of course, it's all fun in the song. But what if it turns out to be a reality? When the world decided on 12 August, 2012 to celebrate the first edition of the World Elephant Day to implement a sense of awareness and urgency to protect this beautiful animal from extinction, it was meant to be a clarion call to all to help save the species.

Ironically, it is from humans that pachyderms face the gravest threat as they jostle with us for space and resources. Assam is no stranger to this sad syndrome where the fight for supremacy often ends with the death of one or the other.

Elephant population

The state is home to nearly 5,000 Asiatic elephants.

"There is a big illusion in Assam where people, in general, believe that the elephant population is increasing because of which these conflicts take place. But that is not true. If we observe the data for the last three to four years you will see that on an average 50 elephants died every year. The forest space has continuously shrunk thus giving the illusion that there are more elephants," head of elephant division at Aaranyak, Bibhuti Prasad Lahkar told Firstpost. Lahkar is a conservationist and ecologist with wide-ranging research experience on ecosystems.

 World Elephant Day: Pitted against humans, pachyderms in Assam battle insensitive crowd, constraints of tiny living space

Saving the pachyderms. Photo credit: Udayan Borthakur

Aaranyak is a non-governmental organisation that operates from Guwahati "to protect nature and its resources ranging from animal and plant species, forests, various water bodies, mountains" and "to secure a future for all species that are under any sort of threat."

Diminishing space for elephants

Elephants are migratory in nature and generally move places for food and survival. These routes are known as elephant corridors which are gradually decreasing with time as the world gets into development mode.

"Earlier, elephants in Assam used to go to Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Mizoram, Myanmar etc. But these places are fast getting out of bounds for them. Even if they manage to reach they are often killed and even eaten by people. The man-elephant conflict has grown much bigger in proportion in Assam and it is no longer a problem that can be handled alone by the state forest department. For instance, in many places, the power lines are not high enough leaving elephants exposed to the risk of electrocution. At times these low height power lines also end up helping unscrupulous elements to electrocute the animal. Had the power department insulated the elephant habitat, many pachyderms would not have died. These have to be done not only in forests but also in the surrounding areas. A holistic and multidisciplinary approach can only help achieve the desired results in elephant conservation," Lahkar said.

There are other administrative issues as well in the state when it comes to compensation in case there is a death caused by elephants.

"In Kerala, if a person is killed by an elephant his or her family will get Rs 10 lakh as compensation within three days. But in Assam, it is only Rs three lakh and compensation is hardly given for damage to crop and homes and also the person if the affected is injured. Moreover, at times the compensation is not given even after six months of the incident," he said.

The sheer magnitude of the problem can be gauged from the fact that states like Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh have declared man-elephant conflict as a natural disaster and have increased the compensation amount.

"Like floods, which don't announce their arrival, elephants also don't announce the arrival. The attacks are invariably sudden. Assam is yet to upgrade the nature of the problem and consider it as a natural disaster," the Aaranyak member said.

Geographical expanse

What is worrisome is that the geographical zone of the man-elephant conflict in Assam is only increasing every day. Districts like Sonitpur, Nagaon, Golaghat, Baksa, Udalguri, Goalpara, Karbi Anglong are worst hit among others. Out of the state's 33 districts, around 18 are battling the problem with various levels of severity.

"The problem has now reached Nagaon and Biswanath whereas earlier it was limited to Golaghat only. Even Guwahati is not spared with an elephant straying from the nearby Amchang Wildlife Sanctuary only recently. Wherever there is an elephant habitat or a corridor there is a conflict zone," Lahkar said.

Significantly, the cup of tea of which Assam is so proud is also guilty to some extent.

"Encroachment by tea estates into forestland is also one of the main reasons why these estates often find elephants storming into gardens," he said.

In February this year, Assam forest minister Parimal Sulkabaidya gave shocking details about the gravity of the problem in the state Assembly.

According to a report in The Telegraph, a total of 761 people and 249 elephants died due to man-elephant conflict in the state between 2010 and 2018, the minister told the Assembly. Giving details, Suklabaidya said 25 elephants died in 2010, 15 in 2011, 28 in 2012, 22 in 2013, 32 in 2014, 22 in 2015, 32 in 2016 and 46 in 2017. The highest number of elephant deaths during this period occurred due to electrocution (92), mauling by trains (54), accidental (38), poisoning (30), poaching (20) and injury (15). During this period Rs 85.74 crore ex gratia was released by the state government.

Biggest challenge in grapple with the matter

Crowd management is fast emerging as the biggest challenge when it comes to protecting elephants. The staff strength in the district offices of the forest department is woefully short than the required number to handle the problem efficiently. The poor infrastructure in terms of scarcity of vehicles and weapons is only compounding the problem.

"If we involve the police and Village Defence Party which exists in all villages, the men and material shortage can be mitigated to a large extent. Lack of awareness among the people is a huge issue. Many a time people surround the animal, irritate them by pulling their tails and it is only natural that the animals get agitated and retaliate. In West Bengal, there is a rapid action force to handle this kind of situations but there is none in Assam," Lahkar said.

The eastern Bodoland Territorial Area Districts (BTAD) area also terribly affected by the rising incidents of man-elephant conflict.

"We are conducting awareness programmes on the need to prevent encroachment and deforestation so that a minimum sustainable space for the elephants can be created. We are also putting up electric fences on borders between human habitat and forest areas. Even the villagers are involved and watchtowers are being built so that people can eye on elephant movement in batches. But that is not enough. We need to do more," said Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) deputy chief Kampa Borgoyary who looks after the portfolios of forest, tourism and education.

Borgoyary also blamed deforestation in Upper Assam and districts bordering the BTAD area as the immediate trigger for these increasing conflicts.

"In places like Sonitpur and Lakhimpur, the forest cover is fast dwindling. Due to lack of space, the elephants are now entering villages in BTAD. Moreover, new tea estates in the BTAD are also eating up into the forest belt. This is a man-made crisis," the BTC deputy chief said.

Role of Aaranyak

Aaranyak has played a fundamental role in identifying conflict zones and resolve them through a blend of research and mitigation in Assam and the North East.

"We see what kind of people die, which crops are affected, which seasons attract the elephants the most towards human habitation etc. We try to fence the vulnerable areas and educate people on coexisting with elephants. We are trying to convince people to shift to the farming of those crops which are not consumed by elephants like lime and lemongrass. The idea is to convert them to cash crop farmers which will not only protect their livelihood but also keep the elephants away," he said.

The experiment has yielded satisfactory results at a pilot project level at a couple of villages in Numaligarh, one of the worst-affected regions.

Cultivation of elephant repellent crops in Golaghat. Photo credit Manjit Konwar

Cultivation of elephant repellent crops in Golaghat. Photo credit Manjit Konwar

The NGO also strongly favours putting up electric fences to protect affected zones but maintains active participation from the people is a must for its success.

"Often the maintenance of these fences is left to the government, but the government cannot do it alone. In areas where the fences are well-maintained the problem has subsided," Lahkar said.

Another major obstacle in handling the problem is little knowledge about the movement pattern of the animal.

"When we can fit radio collars onto a sizable number of them, it will be easy to study their movement patterns. But all these are short-term measures. There is a need for long-term measures like restoration of forests. Increasingly due to climate change patterns, even the water reserve is going down. Getting the green cover back is also pertinent for human survival not only elephants," the ecologist said.

Hope ain't over yet

The only silver line is that the situation is still in a reversible stage if all stakeholders join hands to create a safe environment for humans and elephants. In the same song Ten Little Elephants, the pachyderms "had such enormous fun/They called another elephant to play".

Won't it be fun to happily coexist?

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Updated Date: Aug 13, 2019 08:50:16 IST