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Reporter's Diary

On the trail of rampaging elephants

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Date:Feb 20, 2014

Down To Earth reporters visit human-elephant conflict zones and discover that affected people are increasingly venting their ire on forest staff for not keeping jumbos at bay

Lalita Lohar with her son in her home damaged by an elephant; for days the house won’t be repaired in the faint hope of compensation (Photos: Sayantan Bera)

Fire fighters of killing fields

Author(s): Sayantan Bera

People of northern West Bengal have refrained from killing jumbos—perhaps due to the god-like status accorded to them over generations. But they haven’t been kind to the rag tag force of the state forest department

The picturesque Hila tea estate of Dooars in northern West Bengal is located on the lap of a winding hill neighbouring Bhutan. On the night of January 8, this year, Lalita Lohar, a labourer in the estate, woke up to the sound of crumbling walls and a collapsing tin roof. She ran for her life with her teenage son for she knew the perils of standing up to an elephant raid. In two hours, beginning 1.30 am, two wild elephants razed down 12 houses, ate up stored grains and drank hadiya, a local brew, until they were driven away by residents of labour line number 3. “I rebuilt this house last year after it was damaged by elephants,” tells a teary eyed Lohar the next day, “my daughter sent money by working as a housemaid in Siliguri. Now I am left with nothing.” All Lohar got was a measly 5 kg of rice and a plastic sheet as compensation. The forest department won’t pay for her damaged hut as, under the Plantation Labour Act, housing is the responsibility of the tea estate.

Despite the tragedy Lohar could be considered lucky. In just two districts of north Bengal—Jalpaiguri and Darjeeling—over 50 people are killed on an average every year by raging elephants. Not that elephants are to blame—just about 34 percent of their habitat constitutes forests now, the rest has been occupied over the years by tea gardens, labour lines, road and rail tracks, resorts and townships. A comparison with the rest of the country shows the intensity of human-elephant conflict. North Bengal accounts for one out of every eight human deaths in India while it harbours only about 2 per cent of the wild elephant population in the country.

Twenty-seven-year-old Arun Lama has a distant look in his eyes. When I met him on an early evening last month, he was busy making a memorial for his father next to their house. White flags fluttered around him—Lama is a practising Buddhist—as if announcing a truce between elephants and the people. Arun’s father, Mohan Lama, was trampled by a wild elephant in December last year. He was on his way home, walking along the highway adjacent to the forests.

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Lama, despite his loss, empathises with the predicament of the wild elephants. “The forest cover is thin, there is no fodder for elephants there, what choice do they have but raid fields and houses?” he says. Jiban Sharma, a former panchayat head whose father once collected elephant dung in the mornings and kept it in the puja room—elephants are revered as Mahakal baba or Ganesh ji in these parts—is dismissive. “We should set up industries here. If there are no croplands and forests what will elephants come for?”

Sharma’s anger is not unfounded—every year elephants damage over 3,500 ha in standing crops and thousands of houses. The paltry compensation of Rs 7,500 per ha is available for families with land titles—tea gardens workers often do not have these papers. Compensation for hut damage is ridiculously low—between Rs 1,500 to Rs 3,000. Still, people of northern West Bengal have refrained from killing the jumbos—perhaps due to the god-like status accorded to them over generations. But they haven’t been kind to the rag tag force of the state forest department.

Hits and misses: elephant squads of Bengal

For instance, during the elephant raid, Hila residents called up the wildlife squad, tasked to rescue or chase away wild animals—elephants, bison and leopards—when they enter human habitation. By the time the squad reached Hila, the damage was done. Angry residents locked up the squad in the labour line for the next eight hours.

I met the oldest of the eight wildlife squads operating in north Bengal, the Mal Bazar Wildlife squad II set up in 1979. The squad comprises of 17 heads—forest guards and ‘bana sramik'—casual staff working for a pittance—headed by a beat officer. Their equipments are crude: searchlights that need to be carried in one hand while the battery powering the light is connected through wires to be carried in the other hand, double barrel guns which miss more than it hits (the gun fires iron pellets meant not to injure wildlife), sirens fitted in two jeeps and fire crackers.

In “season time” (when paddy and maize ripen in fields) the squad receives up to 50 calls daily, mostly during night hours. Tasked to cover about 12 forest ranges spread across Darjeeling and Jalpaiguri districts, the team has no option but to pick and choose which places to visit, even after splitting in groups. Facing the abuse of villagers, beatings and detention, are common.

Members of the Malbazar elephant squad poses for the camera. When elephants give chase they have no option but to run for life

Haripada Ray is an old hat at the Mal squad, working since 1982. He considers himself lucky to have escaped death on more than one occasion when elephants chased him angrily. “There is nothing you can do; we drop the lights and guns and run for life,” he says with a smile. Ray also spoke of changing elephant behaviour—larger herds are splitting into smaller groups before raiding an area (making chasing away all the more difficult) and display the proverbial aggression, charging towards searchlights with screams that “can stop your heartbeat”.

The team works without sleep for days—has no special training in either elephant behaviour or modern techniques. All learning is on-the-job. Forget payments for overtime, squad members do not have any special insurance to cover for the risk involved. The team had asked for searchlights fitted with a battery and rubber bullets, but to no avail.

“There is little food for the elephant in the jungle,” a squad member told me, “fodder plantations in wildlife areas are sparse.” Little surprise, elephants have learnt to dig into potato fields and are raiding schools for mid-day meals.

By the highway in Jalpaiguri district, one can spot shrines of Mahakal baba. The reverence among locals have diminished as elephant raids became more frequent. Once calm giants, they are now much feared for their proverbial aggression (Photo: Ramnath Ray)

Don't give me red

How the West Bengal forest department's attempt to help communities scare elephants away backfired

Author(s): Alok Gupta

Forest department staff are usually at the receiving-end of ire of people whose homes and crops are raided by rampaging elephants. So, in a bid to improve its relations with the communities living on the periphery of Barjora forest range in noth Bankura, the forest department of West Bengal decided to distribute battery-operated flash lights to keep wild elephants at bay.

The plan was to distribute one flash light for every 20 houses. Forest guards were upbeat about the plan thinking they would be able to win over the villagers by distributing flash lights.

Forest guard Ganesh Chandra Saha, who has been roughed up several times by irate villagers for not being able to keep elephants away, went to one of the affected villages bearing his department's gift—a bag containing three flash lights. As soon as he pulled these out, residents got extremely angry. They caught Saha by his shirt collar and were ready to rough him up again.

Saha pleaded with the villagers to let him go and explain the reason for their extreme anger; after all, the flash lights were meant to protect them from elephants. Saha's query was answered with another query.

“Why are these torches red in colour?”

A herd of elephants from Bankura's forests ate up the potato crop on a 0.8 hectare farm in Dadhimukha village in January. They also destroyed cabbage and cauliflour fields and pulled down the wall of a flour mill and ate nearly 600 kg wheat flour (photo by Alok Gupta)

Saha finally saw light—the changed political situation has led to a change in colour codes in the state. Political leadership in West Bengal has changed hands, and the red colour associated with Communist Party of India (Marxist) has given way to Trinamool Congress and chief minister Mamta Banerjee's favoured blue colour (she is getting all red-coloured buildings in West Bengal painted blue).

The village residents didn't want anything to do with red. The forest department officials were clueless about the community's feelings.

Community link broken

Officials of forest department on the condition of anonymity admitted that the political change in the state has broken their link with the community.

The dedicated cadres of CPI (M) earlier worked with the forest department to resolve the damage caused by elephants. In the past three years, these cadres have vanished, wiping out the crucial link between the forest department and local residents. During the 30-year-rule of CPI (M), its cadres had made themselves acquainted with the compensation policy.

Party cadre workers helped people fill up application forms, attach documents required and get assessment done of damage to crops or huts by wild animals, especially elephants. These cadre members would then submit the application to the forest department and ensured that victims received their compensation.

Forest department pays compensation of Rs 1 lakh to families whose members are killed by elephant. In case of crop ruination or damage to huts, an assessment is done for deciding the amount of compensation. Generally, compensation to partially damaged huts ranges from Rs 500 to Rs 5,000.

In majority of cases, the amount ranges from Rs 800 to Rs 1,500. Residents find it extremely difficult to fill up their own application forms to get compensation. Even if they are able to submit the application to the forest department, they find it extremely difficult to make rounds to the forest department to make enquiries about their pending application.

"We invest more than Rs 500 in commuting to the department's office to get a compensation of Rs 1,000," angry residents of Dadhimukha village told Down To Earth.

Officials explained that a few years ago, villagers were not divided along party lines. Instead, they were loyal to one single party. Now, villagers have fragmented loyalties that is leading to discord over payment of compensation.

There have been situations when the forest department came under fire after payment of compensation to residents who incurred losses because of rampaging elephants. Residents would protest that CPI (M) supporters were paid more than TMC supporters or vice-versa.

Cadres of Trinamool Congress are still inexperienced and have little idea about bridging the gap between officialdom and the community.

Employees of forest department are hoping that the Trinamool Congress cadres will fill the void soon. At present, the department is trying to rebuild the burnt bridges by organising a series of training programmes to teach the party workers the nuances of policies.

The forest department has, meanwhile, learnt a new lesson—don't give people anything red in colour.

Jharkhand: elephants keep reds away

Residents of Kherwan, Raghunathpur and Pillit villages in Chandil Block of Jharkhand who are greatly affected by elephants, claim that in reality they are seeing better days. In a way rampaging elephants have brought peace to the region.

Ground reality is at variance with what figures tell. Three residents have been killed by elephants in the past one year. Besides, scores of houses have been damaged by these frequenting tuskers.

Nagendra Mahto and Lau Pramanik told Down To Earth that a few years ago villagers used to shiver with fear in night. "There was not a single person who would dare to venture out of his house after the sunset," they said.

My instant opinion was, "Of course, it must be the elephants. But have elephants stopped raiding villages in recent years?" I asked. Mahto and Pramanik broke into a fit of laughter. “Elephants come every night, but there is someone else who has stopped coming to our villages,” they informed.

Their enigmatic statements baffled me.

After a bit of cajoling and probing, they gave me a clue. In these villages, elephants are often referred to Osama Bin Laden. The clue proved too complicated for me. I asked them to explain.

Mahto hesitantly started explaining that the whole region was severely affected by Naxalites a few years ago. Armed Naxalites would come to the village and forcibly take away cooked meals. They would also hold kangaroo courts to establish their stronghold in the region.

Around five years back when elephants of Dalma Wildlife Sanctuary started invading Chandil, things changed for good. In 2010, three unknown bodies were spotted at the periphery of the village. All three of them had been trampled by elephants.

Live bullets were found in the pockets of two of the deceased. On seeing the bodies, residents decided to stay indoors. By evening, all the three bodies vanished. The only evidence that remained were the blood stains on the ground.

Herds of black giants have done what men in khakhi uniform have been unable to do in the region—keep the men in red in check.

Caught between people and elephants

Author(s): Kumar Sambhav Shrivastava

Down To Earth accompanies Rourkela forest division’s Elephant Anti-depredation Squad in an operation to chase away a wild herd

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On January 18, at around 9 pm, on hearing about elephant movement, the mobile squad reached Jharbera village, 40 km from Rourkela. The squad members, a bunch of untrained, unemployed youth headed by a forester, quickly started readying their tools. They poured engine oil on the torches and fireballs made by tying old clothes on sticks and wires, picked up searchlights and fastened the batteries powering searchlights to their backs, put hand grenade-like “crackers” in their pockets and briskly marched towards the fields.

Dark in colour, elephants are not easy to spot. “Besides, they hide in bushes when they see us,” said Gopal Oram, who led the squad. An hour later a spotlight fell on an elephant behind the bushes. As the members of the squad moved closer, seven-eight elephants emerged from the bushes one by one. They screamed, burst crackers and hurled fireballs at the elephants. The elephants did not budge. In fact, many threatened to charge at the forest team. Then a fireball hit an elephant and it turned away. People kept hurling fireballs, screaming and chasing them. For a moment the team thought it had pulled it off.

As the forest team started to return, one of the villager residents informed it that at least two tuskers from the herd were hiding inside the fields. It was not safe for the squad to remain there. Their torches and fireballs had exhausted, the batteries of the searchlights were almost drained and they were in the middle of the fields with elephants on two sides. The squad members quickly rushed to their vehicles, refuelled their torches, picked more fireballs and again entered the fields.

The drained-out batteries of the searchlights had handicapped them. The herd they had chased away had returned. With the remaining fireballs and torches the team could somehow chase it to a distance once again but did not spot the two tuskers that were left behind. “The herd will keep coming back unless all of them are chased away together,” said a squad member. As their tools exhausted they came back to their vehicles.

Angry people did not let the forest team leave the village till morning. They had to keep awake the whole night to guard their houses. The squad members complain the government provides them neither insurance nor enough quality tools. Besides, this way of chasing away elephants is not effective anymore. “Elephants have become immune to crackers and spotlight. The herds now split into smaller groups before raiding villages. This makes it extremely difficult to chase them away,” said Oram.

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