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Elephantine Menace

Md. Sabir Nishat
Every day the newspapers of Assam come out with screaming headlines of man-elephant conflict leading to loss of lives on both sides, though the death toll of human beings is on the higher side. Things have come to such a pass that everyone seems to be perturbed but with no solution in sight as to how to tackle this problem which has assumed dangerous proportions in recent times.

Even the ever-increasing conflict has reverberated on the floor of the Assam Assembly with members cutting across party lines and seeking a way out of the elephantine problem.

Reports pouring from different parts of the State, especially that of Behali and Misamari in Sonitpur district, Ahatguri in Jorhat district, Balipara in Udalguri district, Narayanpur in Lakhimpur district, Kamalabari in Majuli, Charaideo in Sivasagar district, have painted a grim scenario of man-elephant conflict with people passing sleepless nights for fear of the wild pachyderm on the rampage. Four persons were trampled to death by a herd of wild elephants at Salna reserve forest area in eastern Assam on December 7 last year. “The herd mowed down the victims and literally tore apart two of them,” said A. Das, a wildlife official.

In another gruesome incident at Behali on the same day two people were crushed to death by a herd of wild elephants when it entered into a village leaving a trail of destruction. The death toll would have been much higher had it not been for the timely intervention of the forest rangers who chased away the herd using fire-crackers.

A herd of 20-25 elephants killed a person and seriously injured an eight-year-old boy at the Gutighat village on December 17 last year in Charaideo subdivision of Sivasagar district.

Wild elephants during the past five years have claimed 248 lives while 268 elephants have died during the same period, many of them becoming victims of retaliation by incensed humans, said a startling revelation of wildlife department report released last month.

The most disturbing trend, the report says, are the villagers resorting to poisoning the marauding elephants when in the past they drove them away by beating drums or bursting firecrackers.

What is the way out of the situation? This is a question baffling the wildlife experts, conservationists and officials. Experts point out that the conflict has been on the rise because of the shrinkage in habitat of the pachyderms and encroachment upon the natural elephant corridors.

The gunning down of an elephant allegedly on the ground of being ‘rogue’ at the Behali tea estate in Sonitpur district on December 16 last year has come under scathing criticism from conservationists and wildlife lovers alike. They point out that the elephant if it had been really a rogue could not have been identified with certainty as there was no known mark except that the height of the two elephants matched. “Killing of elephants is not the solution. The real solution lies in protecting the reserved forests besides restoring the lost elephant habitat and corridors,” said an animal rights activist.

However, Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife) Mohan Chandra Malakar said that the elephant had been declared rogue and ordered to be shot in 2003 after it had trampled five persons. As per State Forest Department records, the elephant about 10 ft in height and aged between 45-50 who earned the notorious sobriquet ‘Laden’ from the villagers for terrorizing them had killed five persons in 2003, four persons in 2004 and wiped out a family of four in one stroke on the night of November 19 last year. The State Forest Department (Wildlife Division) hired the services of eminent hunter Dwipen Ram Phookun to bring down the elephant.

But there is a raging controversy surrounding the killing of the ‘rogue’ tusker Laden with the locals and members of several NGOs including Nature’s Bonyapran, Aaranyak, WWF-India, Dolphin Foundation, Ecosystems-India, CEE-NE, Centre for Environment Education, Nature’s Beckon saying that the jumbo shot dead was an innocent one. Denouncing the killing, the NGOs said it tantamount to violation of the Wildlife Protection Act, which states that “no wild animal shall be killed unless all possible options of capturing, translocating and tranquilizing are exhausted.” The members lamented that instead of addressing the root causes of the increasing number of man-elephant conflict in the state, the authorities concerned took the hasty decision to kill the elephant proclaiming it as ‘rogue’ when there was lack of substantial evidence. Moreover, the people’s belief and that of the NGOs gained further credence when a woman was crushed to death a day after the ‘rogue’ had been killed. Wildlife activists said they would seek the intervention of Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi to rein in the forest department from proclaiming homeless and displaced elephants as ‘rogues’ without first clearing the forest lands of encroachers.

Meanwhile, Malakar is reported to have said that he ordered the probe as he had received complaints that the animal killed may not be the killer rogue against which he had issued death warrants thrice.

With the growing man-elephant conflicts across the State, village-level volunteers, who work in tandem with the Forest Department, have been pressed into service to minimize the loss of life and property.

Assam today accounts for half of the country’s total elephant population of 10,000. Official figures estimate the elephant population in the wilds of the State at more than 5,524 with 800 of them residing in the Kaziranga National Park. “Unless permission is granted for capturing a few of them and translocating them elsewhere, there could be more deaths,” says a forest official on the condition of anonymity.

Under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, the Union Forest and Environment Ministry has categorized wild elephants under Schedule 1. This prohibits the capture or killing of elephants below five feet in height, besides those bearing distinct signs of pregnancy and mothers with suckling calves. Only the capture of confirmed wild elephants is possible under the Act, and that too after the chief wildlife warden obtains Centre’s permission.

It may be recalled here that retired Chief Conservator of Forests, S.P. Sahi heading a commission constituted by the Centre to examine the phenomenon in the wake of large scale rampage caused by elephants in Assam had recommended the capture of 100 elephants. But when the then AGP Government ordered the capture of 95 elephants, it drew flak from all quarters.

The elephant habitat in Assam occurs in distinct contiguous belts flanking the two major valleys – Brahmaputra and Barak. These belts are contiguous to elephant habitat of other states and countries, mainly Bhutan, say an elephants’ census report of the State Forest Department.

Conservationists alarmed by the increasing number of elephants and the rapid shrinkage of habitat, feel that the state’s fragile ecosystem will be unable to support them. “It’s high time the elephants habitat are restored by clearing the forest areas from encroachers and preventing destruction of forests,” said an elephant expert, adding, “where will the poor creatures live when their own habitat is intruded upon by human; the places they are reported to have wrecked havoc were once their original habitat.”

Interestingly, startling figures disclosed by Ajoy Sarmah of Nature’s Bonyapran said out of the 14,016 hectare of Behali reserve forest areas - the worst scene of man-elephant conflict leading to high death toll - 3,375 hectare has been encroached upon.

Wildlife activists say, following shrinkage in its habitat, a change in the behavioural pattern of pachyderm has been noticed, especially of those living in areas between the Barail Reserve Forest and the forests and tea estates located towards the north of the Naipuh Reserve Forest.

Noted environmentalist Anwaruddin Choudhury of the Guwahati-based Rhino Foundation for Nature says destructive behaviour by the elephants points to serious ecological degradation in their natural habitat in Barail Reserve Forest and in North Cachar.

Most environmentalists echo his views as they feel that widespread felling of trees by timber smugglers in cahoots with a section of corrupt police and district administration officials and encroachment in the reserve forest areas over the years have been the root causes of the tuskers going out on a rampage. “As is their wont elephants are by nature of cool temperament but when they feel threatened in their own habitat they are bound to retaliate,” said a wildlife activist.

It is against this gloomy scenario, the Union Ministry of Forest and Environment’s Project Elephant may well pave the way for a ‘compact corridor’ for wild elephants keeping in view the rapid shrinkage of their habitat and, at the same time, check the depredations caused by them.

The corridor is to be carved out across 273 km near the Barail North Cachar Hills. Besides, the Ministry has suggested the setting up of three more elephant reserves.

Another successful project has been erecting solar fencing at Dehimukh reserve forest to keep at bay the wild elephants from straying into human habitation. Talking to this writer, S.K. Srivastav, Conservator of Forests (Eastern Assam Circle) said that solar fencing worked out really well as there were no reports of any loss or damage to life and property in the 30 villages on the fringes of Dehimukh reserve forest. “We have already put up 10 km stretch of solar fencing another 13 km will be added to it soon,” said Srivastav adding, “care has also been taken that adequate fodder crop is grazed for the elephants beyond the fencing.”

Conservationists and wildlife activists agree that if solar fencing is put up in areas where elephant attacks have been most rampant and Project Elephant goes off well, it will go a long way in solving this elephantine problem.