Between 2015 & 2018, man-elephant conflict claimed 1,713 human & 373 elephant lives in the country. Of this, Bengal alone accounted for 307 human deaths
Siliguri: An elephant calf was seriously injured after being hit by a speeding car on Asian Highway 2 in Naxalbari in West Bengal’s Darjeeling district on November 7 night. The incident occurred while a herd of 60 elephants was crossing the highway.
The calf was accompanied by its mother. Its left foreleg was reportedly fractured and several cut marks found on its body apparently due to the collision with the car. “Around 9.45 pm, an elephant started chasing cars and vandalising small shops on the highway while a speeding car hit its calf,” said locals.
After that, a search operation was launched by forest officials and local people. Forest officials found the injured calf slumped beside the road and groaning in pain adjacent to Kiran Chandra Tea Garden. Forest officials of Bagdogra range, Tukriajhar range along with Sukna squad tranquilised and treated the elephant calf. Later in the morning, the calf walked back towards the herd in the Bagdogra forests.
Meanwhile, the car was damaged by the mother elephant. “An investigation has been started, owner of the car and two accused were booked under Wildlife Protection Act and relevant sections of the IPC,” said Sheikh Fareed, divisional forest officer of Kurseong forest division.
This was not a one-off case. Man-elephant conflicts are common in the Bagdogra area of Darjeeling district. However, what stood out was that the elephant was hit by a speeding car -- normally trains are behind casualties. As harvesting season has started, a large number of elephants have entered Kurseong division from the Mahananda forest.
The herd passes through the highway every night to fetch food from agricultural fields and return to the forest by early morning. They generally raid local paddy and maize fields. Locals claimed that there are at least 130 elephants in Bagdogra, Panighata and Bamonpokhri forest ranges and people have been alleging the forest department’s inaction for the death toll and crop damage due to presence of elephants for a long time.
Kurseong divisional forest officer J Sheikh Fareed said that the forest division has proposed to erect electric fencing to minimise human-elephant conflict in the region, to keep the animal away from villagers and raiding crops around the forest villages of the area.
“We have already identified 30 villages under Kurseong forest division. The fencing will be 34-km long. But everything is on the proposal level,” Fareed asserted.
Sandip Sarkar, member of Siliguri-based NGO -- Nature Help Organisation (NHO) -- welcomed the forest division’s decision to reduce famers’ losses and protect crops during harvesting season but questioned the survival of those fencing. “Maintenance of these 34-km-long fencing will be a tough job. Earlier, the department had put similar fencing in the Dooars region but we found that it no longer serves its purpose,” he said.
Decreasing forest cover, food scarcity, human intervention and rapid urbanisation have forced wild elephants to raid tea gardens and human habitat, say experts. In the three years between 2015 and 2018, man-elephant conflict has claimed 1,713 human and 373 elephant lives in India. Of this, Bengal, with 307 human deaths in the said period, is now emerging as the new arena of man-elephant conflict in the country. The figures were revealed in a reply to Parliament by the then Union minister of state for environment, forests and climate change Mahesh Sharma last year.
On September 27 this year, another incident happened in Alipurduar district. The Siliguri-Dhubri Intercity Express, between Banarhat and Nagrakata, hit an elephant that was trying to cross the railway tracks in the jungle. The train hit left the elephant severely injured. The Banarhat-Nagrakata route is notorious for elephant deaths ever since the line was converted to broad gauge. It runs right through the heart of the Dooars, across several elephant corridors, and on its way, has killed or left injured many wild animals since its first run.
In the period between January 2013 and June 2019, a total of 67 elephants were mowed down by trains. CV Raman, Alipurduar divisional railway manager of the Northeastern Frontier (NF) Railway, had said in July last year after an accident, “We have imposed a 24-hour speed restriction along a 15-km stretch between Chalsa and Banarhat stations in the Dooars. For 10 km, trains will run at a speed of 30 kmph from 5 pm to 5 am, while along the remaining 5-km stretch, the trains will run at a speed of 30 kmph for 24 hours.”
Talking about the rising man-elephant conflict in the region Siliguri based wildlife activist Abhijan Saha said, “For over a century, elephants have used a route along the banks of the river Mechi that separates India and Nepal. They would use the route to travel to Nepal at night and feast on maize fields during the harvest season. In 2016, the Nepal government, with the aid of the World Bank, set up 17.14 km electric fence that would prevent the elephants from crossing over to Nepal. That affected their lifestyle badly. Around 600 elephants stay in North Bengal and their traditional route has been blocked.”
Explaining further, Saha said, “Before 2016, the herds used to travel from Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary to Nepal through Rohini, Balason, Panighata and Kolabari forest. They still follow this route for food but unable to cross the electric fencing then they started crop raiding at villages adjacent to Mechi river in Naxalbari.”
Sharing the same sentiment, Sandip Sarkar of Siliguri NHO said that the migratory pattern was blocked along border with Nepal, the elephants would cross over, spend two months in Nepal and then come back. Unfortunately, Nepal has blocked the natural corridor without any consultation with India. “Blocking their natural corridor has drastically increased cases of elephant attacks in villages under Kurseong division,” Sarkar added.
At Rakamjote, Binod Tamang (65), a farmer, said, “[West Bengal CM] Mamata Banerjee had asked PM [Narendra] Modi to intervene. But nothing happened, even the state government hasn’t cared at all while the crops are destroyed, we don’t get the compensation on time.”
Divisional forest officials admitted that sometimes it takes time to process compensation due to some error from the bank’s end but they respond to every application they received. A WWF India study claimed that the Bengal government pays over Rs 3 crore every year on elephant control measures and payment of ex gratia relief, which comes to about Rs 75,000 per elephant, highest in the country.
A recent research on spatial patterns of human-elephant conflicts in changing land cover in North Bengal revealed that both the elephant and human population have increased in the past few decades with large tracts of forests converted to commercial tea plantations, army camps and human settlements in Siliguri and adjourning area. Human population increased by 6,44,989 between 2001 and 2011 census while elephant population increased by 201.
The research further noted North Bengal comprises 1.8% of the entire elephant population of India which is responsible for 12% of the human deaths confirming to the magnitude of the problem. Apart from the elephant population, this region also supports a high human density of 500–700 persons per sq km. According to latest data of West Bengal forest department, North Bengal region has a total of 732 elephants in 237 elephant corridors.
Majority of the attacks happened after dark when people were returning from work or driving elephants from agriculture fields and near human habitations. The frequency of conflicts increases during the rainy season which also coincides with the harvest of major agricultural crops such as wheat, maize and paddy. Inhabitants of this region grow a lot of horticultural crops such as jackfruit, mango and betel nut trees around households and a major proportion of the incidents also occurred when elephants came to feed on these crops at night.
There is also presence of large number of human settlements primarily of daily wage labors working in these gardens and they regularly chase and harass elephants.
In Terai, tourism and elephant conflict both are increasing in equal manner. Many tourist spots have been developed in this area in past decade which is gradually changing the local economy but problem lies with irresponsible behaviour of tourists.
“As Kiran Chandra Tea Garden elephant corridor is well known for elephant sighting, hundreds of tourists came here just to witness jumbos. Human interference has created disturbance in elephant’s regular movement. Responsible tourism, regular monitoring from forest department and police restriction on traffic can reduce such conflicts,” elaborated Sandip Sarkar, member of Siliguri-based NHO.
Earlier this year, an early warning system which helps prevent human-elephant conflict installed in villages situated in forest areas in North Bengal region which often witnesses incidents of elephant attacks. The forest department has installed 16 Automated Elephant Tracking Device (AETD) in several villages near Gorumara National park in Jalpaiguri, while other 12 such devices have been set up around the Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary in Darjeeling district on a pilot basis. Samiran Raj, range officer of Bagdogra forest range, suggested the stepping up of community participation in the protection of agricultural lands and elephants.
“We have already started a dedicated helpline which is controlled by Sukna squad to monitor elephant movement and mitigate elephant attacks in the region. Apart from this we are closely working with villagers to reduce conflicts and aware them on how to respond to this wild animal,” Rai added.
Apart from this, a series of awareness programmes were initiated in the Terai Wildlife Trust of India with an aim to sensitise the tea estate workers and tea-estate authorities on ways to avoid negative encounters between humans and elephants.
Saha elaborated, “In period of four months in early 2019, a series of sensitisation activities encompassing eight tea estates (Kiranchandra, Ashapur, Chumta, Marapur, Marryview, Rohini, Shimulbari and ORD Terai) were conducted to build public support for securing Right of Passage for elephants by facilitating their unhindered movement. These programs have helped sensitise more than 470 people including tea estate labour workers, tea estate management authorities, villagers from nearby areas and night patrolling teams on the urgency to protect elephants and need to initiate elephant friendly practices in their tea estates.”
Moreover, Saha believes this conflict situation needs immediate resolution between India and Nepal. This Mahananda-Kolabari elephant corridor had also been identified by the 2005 edition of Rights of Passage, a study by the Union ministry of environment and forests and Wildlife Trust of India. “Some kind of joint-action plan must be formulated and implemented. It’s trans-boundary issue that can be sorted out by dialogue between both sides of the border,” he added.
To resolve this problem researchers suggested, elephants are long ranging species and confining them to fragmented forests will only aggravate the problem. So prevention measure like habitat restoration measures such as improving condition of wildlife corridors should be initiated to maintain gene flow and allow animals to freely move across the landscape.
Historically, North Bengal was a contiguous landscape with elephants moving across neighboring Nepal in the west, Bhutan in the north east, Assam to the east and Bangladesh down south and this should be restored to ensure functioning of a meta population across this region. Transboundary conservation initiatives between India, Bhutan, Nepal and Bangladesh should be taken up keeping in priority movement of elephants and stepping stones between protected areas such as riverine patches and dry sand beds should be conserved. Major anthropogenic activities should be restricted within such sites and artificial barriers to elephant movement such as construction of walls, dams and railway tracks, highways should be restricted.
(The writer is a Kolkata-based independent photojournalist and writer who focuses on social, cultural and environmental issues)