No place to go: The plight of Assam’s cornered elephants is getting worse

There’s a hot zone in Assam that has nothing to do with ULFA insurgents, Bodo militants or illegal migrants from Bangladesh. It’s about elephants.

Sonitpur district can be called Ground Zero of that human-elephant conflict.

Between 2001 and 2014 there have been 245 human deaths and 146 elephant fatalities in Sonitpur. In one year, 2001 alone, 32 elephants died in Sonitpur in retaliation for a spike in human casualties. And the brunt of those deaths have been felt in the tea gardens that dot the district. There’s no mystery why it’s happening says Anupam Sarmah of the World Wildlife Fund.

“Sonitpur had maximum forest loss. Almost 65 percent. That’s why it’s so severe. And the tea garden is the hot spot of human elephant conflict.”

For the wild elephant, the tea garden is just an extension of the forest.

Sandip Roy.

When a herd of wild elephants camps out in a tea garden, on land where tea bushes have been uprooted and Guatemala grass planted to rehabilitate the soil, they can ruin the land overnight says A. K. Bhargava, the managing director of Apeejay Tea.

But Bhargava, who self-deprecatingly calls himself a maali or gardener also admits “Their home is our home.”

It’s in that spirit that Apeejay Tea has joined hands with World Wildlife Fund to implement a three-year strategy to minimize human-elephant conflict in one of its epicentres. Apeejay owns four tea estates in the Sonitpur hot zone. The area however has many other problems- illegal encroachment in forests, militant activity and deforestation with political blessing.

The project hopes to come up with a matrix that can put a number to the loss from damage to property. It wants to set up movement corridors for safe passage for the elephants. And it hopes to find innovative new ways to keep elephants from coming into conflict with the humans in the area.

That can prove to be quite the battle of wits.

Elephants are remarkably intelligent creatures and can quickly figure out when they are being hoodwinked. Dipankar Ghose of the World Wildlife Fund says in the 80s and 90s the big buzzword was EPT or Elephant Proof Trenches that were dug to keep the elephants out. But soon elephants figured out how to get around trenches. A young elephant got inside the trench and helped nudge the herd across and when everyone had crossed over they dragged the young one out.

Farmers would place solar-powered red lights in their field which would blink in the dark mimicking predator eyes. But they have to be moved around otherwise the elephants soon figure out that it’s not a real predator.

Assam has a large population of kunkis or domestic elephants that can drive the wild ones back into the forest. But Ghose says now he sees elephant herds splitting into three herds and going into three villages. “There are not enoughkunki resources to combat that,” says Ghose.

Clearly there’s not going to be one magic solution that will solve human-elephant conflict. It’s going to require reinvention, imagination and investment. And if kunki anti-depredation squads work in Assam, they will not work in Bihar which does not have that many domestic elephants.

In India on average 400 people are killed every year in conflict with elephants.

The problem, says Sarmah of WWF, is unlike the tigers, 70 percent of whom are in protected areas, 80 percent of elephants in India are outside protected areas. And compared to 2,226 tigers in India, as per the last census, there are 27-30,000 elephants in the country. The conflict is ongoing and deepening but it does not capture popular imagination the way a man-eater might. “Tiger is like cricket and elephant is like hockey for us,” quips Sarmah.

And though it’s humans who are spreading into what used to be elephant territory, people do not see it that way. “If half my crop is damaged over night my tolerance is reduced even if I love Ganesha,” says Ghose. But he remembers when a raiding elephant died in a village, electrocuted by accident when an electric pole fell on it, the villagers who were up in arms about it, were deeply upset. They garlanded the dead animal and offered prayers, afraid of the ill omen of an elephant death in their backyard. In Monabarie tea estate when six people were killed in three days by an elephant, the Forest Department asked the villagers to write a petition to have the elephant declared rogue, but the villagers balked.

But it is expensive keeping elephants safe from people and vice versa. An electric fence can cost Rs 3-5 lakh per km and needs maintenance. There are lower energizer fences being explored that would cost Rs 80,000 per km. There are plans afoot to develop an early warning system that would alert farmers about approaching elephants. The Apeejay-WWF project is investing in bio fencing in place of the electric fence and setting up nurseries to grow thorny bamboo for that purpose. The goal is to plant 40,000 saplings in three years.

The tea-estate and NGO partnership becomes even more relevant in the current budget climate. Everyone agrees in principle that when a four-lane highway is built, care should be set aside to create corridors for animals whose habitat is being fragmented. But the question is who pays. Highways will says elephants are the forest department’s responsibility. But the forestry and environment ministry had its budget slashed 25% under the Modi government. That’s where a corporation and NGO partnership offers some hope even though an elephant does not belong to either the tea estate or the World Wildlife Fund but to all of us.

In three years there should be a formal elephant corridor through the Sessa Tea Estate. It won’t end the conflict or stop the human pressure on forest cover. Wild elephants will still need 400 kilos of food a day and as hills are deforested they will search for it in fields and granaries.

But we might just brew our Assam tea with a clearer conscience.

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