Elephants in a tea plantation

Bokakhat: Man-animal conflicts have become a growing problem in Assam in the past few years. Reports of such cases manage to find space in prime-time media almost on a regular basis. Notably, the area surrounding the state’s Kaziranga National Park, famous for its one-horned rhinos, is the worst affected.

Over the past several years, villages surrounding Agoratoli in the eastern range of the national park in the Golaghat district of Assam have been facing regular attacks by wild animals. Some of these villages, dominated by the Mising tribal community, are Belogudi, Dhubati, Bamungaon, Amtanga and Balijan.

Here, villagers are mostly dependent on agriculture for their livelihood. Apart from destroying their farmlands, some animals like the tigers also come to these villages in search of food and attack their cattle in the process.

These houses at Bamungaon village are attacked every year on more than one occasion by elephants from neighbouring Kaziranga National Park.

The battle for compensation

Despite submitting their application for compensation for the past ten years, nobody has been suitably compensated. This is despite the existence of a provision to compensate villagers in case of crops, livestock and property damaged by wild animals. In fact, the Centre had enhanced the compensation for death and permanent incapacitation from Rs 2 lakh to to Rs 5 lakh whereas, the amount for grievous injuries was increased from Rs 60,000 to Rs 2 lakh in 2018.

In most cases, the damages were reviewed by a ranger from the forest department but sadly, nobody has been compensated properly so far, lament the villagers. Kaziranga National Park has a policy that owners of every cow or buffalo killed by a tiger from the national park and tiger reserve will be paid Rs 3,750 per dead animal, which is extremely low for the farmers.

In addition to this, as ex gratia, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) also pays the same amount to support farmers. Similarly, in case of crops damaged by elephants, the farmer can only get up to Rs 7,500 as compensation from the national park authority. If deer and wild boars damage crops, there is no access to compensation at all. However, this policy hardly impacts them in reality.

Cows and buffaloes grazing at the lands adjacent to Kaziranga National Park at Belogudi village in Golaghat district

Twenty-four-year-old Lalit Kutum of Belogudi village spends sleepless nights at their tongi in the farmland to keep a watch on their paddy crop as elephant attacks are commonplace. His tongi is nothing but a small bamboo structure with thatched roof that acts both as a granary and a temporary shelter in the farm.

However, last year in April, all of their efforts turned into dust when around 40 elephants from the neighbouring Kaziranga National Park attacked their granary and destroyed all their plantations, including rice and banana trees.

“Herds of elephants attacked our hut that midnight. First, they started eating bananas from our farm. Then they attacked our hut to take rice. I somehow managed to escape but my father got trapped under the thatched roof. He survived with a fractured leg,” Kutum said.

Kutum has submitted the application for compensation last year to the authority but he is yet to yet hear anything about when or, if at all, he will be suitably compensated.

A typical tongi which is nothing but a small bamboo structure with thatched roof that acts as a granary in a farm
Farmers of Balijan village in Golaghat district: (Left) Padma Kutum, (right) Rina Pegu. Elephants damaged their crop in 2012 after which they applied for compensation to the forest department but are still languishing in uncertainty whether or not they will be suitably compensated

Most of the villagers of Bamungaon have reported wild animal attacks on their poultry, cows, buffaloes and goats. Mohan Pegu, a resident, said, “In April 2016, four buffaloes had been killed in a tiger attack in my farm. I had 26 buffaloes then and I used to spend the night at the farm. One evening, around midnight, I heard they were snorting but it was completely dark. I immediately ran outside with a bamboo and torch. That is when I saw a big tiger running away with one of my buffaloes. Then I saw there were other three buffaloes missing from my farm. Next morning, I found all of them dead just few metres away from the farm.”

Mohan Pegu, owner of a cattle farm at Bamungaon village, whose four buffaloes were killed by a tiger in 2016

All four were killed in tiger attack as detected by the local veterinary doctor. Pegu reported the incident to the local forest range office and applied for compensation immediately after Dhanbari camp range officer conducted an inspection. He received only Rs 2,500 as compensation for four buffaloes from WWF but still wait for the compensation from forest department.

There are numerous farmers like Mohanta Pegu who are facing repeated wildlife attacks. In 2013, around 30 elephants attacked his paddy fields and destroyed all his produce. Another elephant attack was reported last year. This time, however, elephants destroyed all jackfruits, coconuts, banana trees along with paddy. In these two cases, he applied for compensation but did not receive any compensation till date.

Mohanta Pegu, a resident of Bamungaon village, awaits to be compensated since 2013
Tarun Doley and his wife Mina, both farmers from Bamungaon village. Around 30 elephants attacked their home around midnight in April 2017. They lost all seeds and saplings stored inside the home. They claimed around Rs 40,000 as compensation but till date did not receive any support from the forest department
Bikasori Doley, residing at Bamungaon village, stands at her paddy field where elephants used to come every night for food as their footprints are clearly seen in the photograph. She lost seeds amounting to Rs 20,000 in an elephant attack in 2016. Forest officials assured her compensation but till date is uncertain whether or not she will be compensated

Conservation or malpractice?

A community organisation Jeepal Krishak Sramik Sangha is raising the issues of the tribals on ground. Pranab Doley, one of the key people of the sangha, said, “The government’s approach largely sees forests as a habitat for wildlife which need protection and now forests have transformed into a commodity and resources and forest produce were left to be exploited by corporations who could dodge environmental laws.”

Doley also went on to say that Kaziranga has been witness to extreme violence in the name of conservation over the past years and tribals, (mostly belonging to the Mising community) living in the border areas of the national park have been victims of these conservation practices.

“We saw unaccountable killing of locals in the name of preventing poaching. Assam government doesn’t have any sustainable plan for these forest villagers. They don’t even have a standard compensation policy for these farmers. We have repeatedly urged the forest department to make a standard compensation policy for victims of wildlife attacks but in vain,” Doley said

Doley also lamented that the government is unwilling to implement Forest Rights Act 2006 across the state and create a division between hill and plains tribals. Referring to the brutal “shoot to kill” policy towards suspected poachers, Doley said, “This military approach to conservation has had serious consequences for the local tribal people, who face arrests and beatings, torture and even death in the name of conservation.”

Incidentally seven-year-old Akash Oraon, who lived around Kaziranga, was shot by forest guards in 2016 while he was wandering over the park boundaries to retrieve his cattle. He sustained serious injuries to his legs, and is undergoing treatment. Following an outcry by the local tribals, two guards of the national park were suspended after the incident.

Tilok Pegu, a local of Bamungaon village, was attacked by elephants in 2013 and survived with partial disability. He submitted application for compensation but nothing has happened till date

Survival International, a London-based tribal rights organisation, has expressed its concern that tribal people are being illegally evicted from their ancestral homelands in the name of conservation though they have been dependent on and managed their environments for millennia.

The international organisation asserted that their lands are not wilderness whereas, they are the best conservationists and guardians of the nature. They should be at the forefront of the environmental movement. Unfortunately, the forest guards of Kaziranga were using extreme power with impunity to kill poachers to safeguard the precious single-horn rhinos which was shocking.

Lila Pegu, residing at Balijan village, has four bighas of land adjacent to Kaziranga National Park where he cultivates rice. Elephants damaged all his produce in 2015 following which he applied for compensation and submitted his bank details to forest department in 2016. But till date, he awaits for a response
Haren Doley, a farmer at Bamungaon village, cultivates mustard, vegetables, black grams. He said, ‘Wild animals have been entering our villages for the past century as there is no food left for them inside Kaziranga’

Surviving the wrath of nature

With each monsoon, Kaziranga gets inundated under several feet of water virtually turning the otherwise national park into a river of dead bodies. Hundreds of animals get killed every year while the others, when they can, seek higher grounds in order to survive.

With each monsoon, Kaziranga gets inundated under several feet of water virtually turning the otherwise national park into a river of dead bodies

However, the deluge is not just restricted to just monsoon but happens up to four times a year between April and October. Floods, the Central Water Commission data say, cost Assam an average Rs 128 crore annually. The floods that hit the park in 2016 were said to be the worst in a decade but 2017 was worse with more than 85% of Kaziranga inundated, displacing thousands of animals. Meanwhile, some 400 animals, including 31 rhinos, perished in last year’s deluge. The Brahmaputra appeared threatening in May, but the flow was not sustained mainly because Arunachal Pradesh upstream has had 40% less rainfall last year.

  • Flood cost Assam an average Rs 128 crore annually
  • 85% of Kaziranga was inundated during the flood in 2017
  • Around 400 animals, including 31 rhinos, perished in the deluge in 2018

However, the annual flood also helps the national park sustain its fragile ecology. the floods deposit mineral-rich alluvial soil that help in triggering growth of plants — the main source of fodder for herbivores and the people residing around the wildlife sanctuary.

Explaining further, Haren said, “Misings are known for their resilient riverine lifestyle and adaptability to floods in Assam. We became climate refugees as our old habitats have become unsustainable due to repeated flooding and erosion. Villages allocated to our forefathers are regularly eroded by floods, and people are thereby compelled to find new lands to build new houses and to satisfy their daily needs. Some of the families resettle inland, while other families choose to stay on the river bank. Since then we are residing here but in recent time conservationists and government of Assam are trying to project Kaziranga forest as animals-only but we are living with these animals for centuries. We know Kaziranga needs both, animals and humans. Animals will not survive if we stop cultivating our lands.”

Mustard field adjacent to Kaziranga National Park.

Few organisations have already started a project which aims to reduce human elephant conflict through community engagement though these are not a long-term solution. Dr Naveen Pandey, deputy director and veterinary advisor, The Corbett Foundation, said, “Under the community engagement project around Kaziranga, we have installed solar fences which are used only during the rice cultivation season and then it is removed. Community has ownership and they take care of upkeep of the solar powered fence.”

Explaining further, Dr Pandey said that in the same project, in areas where solar fencing can’t be done around 150 tongis (watch towers) have been installed. These watch towers can accommodate representative of five families. The process was completed after mapping the entire area followed by identification of suitable spots for installation of the watch tower and made it a community effort rather than individuals guarding their crops.

The vanishing animal corridors

While there are several mitigation measures taken up by local communities and other organisation which have reduced impact of the conflict in several villages, there is also a major chunk of the problem that remains unaddressed and eradicates the root cause of the conflict and sufferings of villagers.

The annual flood also leads to migration of Kaziranga’s wild mammals to the adjoining hills of Karbi Anglong located to its south. The migrating animals use specific forested strips or ‘corridors’ to cross over to higher grounds across the National Highway 37. There are four such corridors currently intact – Panbari, Haldibari, Kanchanjuri and Amguri, which are vital links between the flooded park and the higher grounds in Karbi Anglong. Just like how roads connect cities, wildlife corridors are forest areas that connect two big forest landscapes. The shrinking animal corridors are equally disastrous for animals as a large number of animals get killed due to electrocution, habitat loss and road accidents.

Animal corridors are vanishing day by day due to construction of highways, refineries bordering the forest, which need to be addressed. Further development in the area will only lead to isolation of the reserve. Apart from linear infrastructure and mining and irrigation projects, increased migration and urbanization continues to increase pressure on protected areas and connecting corridors the landscape connectivity that is crucial for the survival of long ranging species like Indian elephant and tigers, is being targeted by indiscriminate stone mining and quarrying units.

The current situation in Kaziranga demands a need for coordination between forest department and people residing neighbouring villages to create a balance between conservation practices and distressed tribal communities as Kaziranga needs both humans and animals.

(Note to editor: Many calls and e-mails to Rohini Ballave Saikia, DFO, Kaziranga National Park, went unanswered and WWF-India refrained themselves from commenting on this issue)

(Tanmoy Bhaduri is a Kolkata-based independent photojournalist who focuses on social, cultural and environmental issues. He can be reached at bhaduritom@gmail.com)

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