Human-elephant conflict is rising across India. Every year nearly 400 people are killed by elephants and about 100 elephants lose their lives. Enigmatically, the conflict is not restricted to …
Much like Maoists
Mining in Saranda forest is forcing elephants to migrate. They never quite settle without clash with people
Author(s): Kumar Sambhav Shrivastava
She is sixteen, brave and likes to talk. People mostly ask her about elephants because she has gone pretty close to them and had her faith shaken. At the age of 13, Nirmala Topno was leading a team of men that would chase away wild elephants raiding crops in Thethaitangar in Simdega district of Jharkhand. “The most important thing was to be brave and keep faith in God. I just did that,” she says. “People with torches and fireballs would surround me. I would go in front of the elephants and request them to follow my instructions. I would chide them if they didn’t.” Then, in November last year, her father was killed by an elephant in one such operation across the border near Rourkela. She still carries a picture of his trampled body in her cell phone. Ever since, Topno has stopped confronting elephants. “They used to be calm even while raiding crops. With little effort we could drive them away,” she says. “They have now become erratic. You can’t trust them anymore.”
The erratic behaviour of elephants is certainly getting noticed in the region close to the Jharkhand-Odish border. In June last year, a herd of 11 wild elephants was seen roaming the roads of Rourkela, the third largest city of Odisha. The administration was caught off guard. They had heard of wild elephants entering villages on forest fringes, but elephants “intruding” into a city was unheard of.
To control immediate damage, the forest staff somehow drove the herd inside the walled Birsa Stadium. As the news spread people came in their hordes to see the wild elephants. To prevent the elephants from getting irritated, the foresters got truckloads of jackfruit and banana and showered them on the elephants to feast on. They called fire brigades to sprinkle water on the elephants to keep them “entertained”.
It was only in late evening after people left that the forest staff started the operation to drive the herd away. They called Topno’s team. People of Rourkela watched in amazement on their TV sets as her team led the elephant herd away.
“It was like a moving zoo,” says Subhash Chandra Swain, regional chief conservator of forests, Rourkela. The incident brought the forest department on its toes. “Elephants are intelligent animals. They remember the routes. We feared the herd would return to the city,” says Swain. The fear was not unfounded. Within two months the same herd entered the fields near the northern border of Rourkela. Since then, at least three more times the herd has come to the periphery of the city and been chased away.
Vagabonds of Sundargarh
Sundargarh district, where Rourkela is, has not been an elephant range in the past few decades. Forest officials say a few herds from neighbouring West Singhbhum district in Jharkhand and Keonjhar in Odisha would migrate to the forest patches bordering the district and leave after the crop season would be over. Elephant sightings have been rare near Rourkela. So, where did the herd in the steel city come from?
The herd was first seen in the Kwarmunda range of the Rourkela forest division in 2010, according to Sanjit Kumar, divisional forest officer (DFO) at Rourkela. It came from the neighbouring Saranda forest in Jharkhand. The forest in Kwarmunda was small but had good vegetation and a stream. Things went well for about two years but as the food source dwindled, conflicts began between the elephants and the residents of nearby villages, says Kumar.
|On the move
“The herd started raiding crops frequently. People lost patience and started chasing the herd away,” says Birad Singh of Kacharu village in Kwarmunda range. The herd moved to new areas, where people were not accustomed to their presence. This caused more conflicts. People chased the elephants away from there as well. It could be during one such distress migration that the herd discovered the route to Rourkela city, say forest officials. Every time the herd was chased away from Rourkela, it raided crops in nearby villages, broke houses and ate the stocks of grain.
As people started protesting, the forest department thought of a “permanent solution”. It decided to chase the herd all the way to Saranda. To everybody’s surprise, within hours of the forest team returning to the headquarters; the herd came back to Rourkela forests. “I have personally led the operation to drive this herd to Saranda at least 15 times but the elephants are just not cooperating,” says DFO Kumar.
In the past two years, many more elephant herds from Saranda have migrated to Sundargarh. “A herd of 17 elephants came in 2012 to Rourkela forests. Another one of 25 elephants followed last year,” says Kumar. Their conflict is more severe. “They are larger herds. Plus, they are not accustomed to human presence, hence are more aggressive. While the herd of 12 elephants (one was born later) has killed four people in the past three years, the herd of 17 elephants has killed five in just one year,” adds Kumar. One of the five persons killed was Topno’s father.
The forest department’s ill-equipped mobile squad is finding it increasingly difficult to chase away elephants raiding villages (see ‘Caught between …’).
|Caught between people and elephants
Down To Earth accompanies Rourkela forest division’s Elephant Anti-depredation Squad in an operation to chase away a wild herd
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.
Disturbance at home
Why are the elephant herds from Saranda choosing to live a displaced life in Rourkela?
Spread over 800 sq km in West Singhbhum, Saranda is the largest Sal forest in Asia. Traditionally, it has been a prime elephant habitat and forms the core of the Singhbhum Elephant Reserve. Official data shows one-eighth of its area, 100 sq km, is leased for mining iron ore. Though only 10-25 sq km of this area is being currently mined, it has caused sufficient damage to the elephant habitat, says R K Singh, a wildlife conservationist who has done PhD on the impact of mining on elephants in Saranda.
“Three large mines of the state-owned Steel Authority of India Limited are operating in and around Saranda. Several small mines have broken the forest block at the eastern boundary which was the migratory route of elephants,” says Singh. “Loss of forest cover, blasting in mines and heavy movement of machinery and ore have forced elephants to migrate in distress.” An increasing number of elephant herds left Saranda in the past decade as mining activity increased in response to soaring iron ore demand. Hardly 100 dumpers transported ore in early 2000s; today, at least 2,000 dumpers ply roads in Saranda every day, says Singh.
Conflict between paramilitary forces and Maoists could have been another source of disturbance for the elephants. Located at the junction of Jharkhand, Odisha and Chhattisgarh, Saranda has been strategically crucial for Maoists. In 2011, the Centre intensified its combing operation to flush out Maoists from Saranda. Unconfirmed reports say the forces burnt patches of forests to increase visibility.
Although the Jharkhand forest department claims Saranda has 350 elephants, Singh thinks not more than 50 are left. “They have all migrated to new areas,” he says. People in nearby villages confirm this. “Earlier, we would see elephants everyday. Now it is hard to spot one even 10-15 km inside the forest,” says Sushil Barla, West Singhbhum district president of the Congress who works with tribals in Saranda.
New range: Chhattisgarh
The Saranda elephants have migrated to not just Rourkela but several other areas outside elephant ranges. The entire elephant population of Chhattisgarh, for instance, is considered to be the result of “range extension” by elephants of Jharkhand and Odisha (see map,).
Elephants require large areas for their movement. Their home range extends from 250 sq km to 600 sq km. The female elephants live in strongly bonded social groups called clans, which have well-established home ranges and social hierarchies within a population in a habitat. When forests are degraded or fragmented in one clan’s home range it cannot move into the remaining habitat as it is likely to be pushed out by the resident clans, observes the Elephant Task Force, headed by environment historian Mahesh Rangarajan, in its report submitted to the environment ministry in 2010. The displaced elephants come in conflict with humans wherever they go. This is exactly what is happening in Chhattisgarh at present.
The state had not seen elephants for decades. “In early 2000s when more and more elephants were entering Chhattisgarh, the then chief minister of the state, Ajit Jogi, told me he was happy to see Lord Ganesha choosing his state over his neighbours’. I warned him it was not a success story,” recalls Vivek Menon, executive director of non-profit Wildlife Trust of India (WTI). “I said the elephants did not choose his state; they lost their homes in the neighbouring states and the consequences of this were going to be disastrous.”
Menon’s fear has come true. Chhattisgarh is today one of the worst-affected states by human-elephant conflict. Eighty-two people died in Chhattisgarh in elephant attacks between 2010 and 2012. In Raigarh district alone 21 elephants were killed between 2006 and 12, mostly in retaliation to crop raiding or human death.
From Chhattisgarh the elephants have started moving into Sidhi and Shahdol districts in Madhya Pradesh and come in conflict with people. The state has been devoid of wild elephants for several decades. “We feared once the corridors are blocked elephant populations would be isolated. But in several cases we are observing that desperate herds are charting new paths,” says Aditya Panda, conservationist in Odisha.
In Odisha as well human-elephant conflict has spread to new districts because of mining.
M D Madhusudan of Mysore-based non-profit Nature Conservation Foundation sees a parallel between Maoists and migrating elephants. “It is worth remembering that the forces bringing about large-scale land-use changes to the central-eastern belt of forests, which are often blamed for land-alienation of tribals and the resultant problem of Maoism, are the same forces that are displacing elephants from their habitats,” he says. “Elephants are being alienated from forests and have nowhere to go.”
Nor do people. Even claiming compensation for loss of lives and crops is a complicated affair, they say. For two months Topno has been doing rounds of government offices but forget about compensation, she is yet to receive her father’s death certificate.
Lack of elephant fodder and fragmentation of forests have led to unusually intense human-elephant conflict in northern West Bengal
Author(s): Sayantan Bera
Boudha Oraon’s lack of anger confounds his son. More than 70 years ago Oraon was born in the labour lines of Grassmore Tea Estate in Jalpaiguri district of northern West Bengal. His father came from what is now Jharkhand to work for British planters who were clearing forests to set up tea estates. As a child Oraon grew up revering Mahakal Baba, the local name for wild elephants whose habitat extended from the Mechi river bordering Nepal to the Sankosh river in Assam. “During those times Ganeshji would pass through our village silently at night. We would realise in the morning after seeing his footprints. We used to take a pinch of soil from the footprint and apply it on our forehead and earlobes,” reminisces Oraon.
Anil Oraon, Boudha’s 27-year-old son, laughs out loud hearing this. “You were nearly killed by your Ganeshji in 2005 when it razed the hut you were sleeping in, remember?” he asks. Boudha closes his eyes and replies moments later, “Mahakal Baba is angry. We took away his forests, settled on his way and there is no food in the jungle.”
In the past two decades Boudha’s hut was razed several times by elephant herds. The little bit of paddy and maize he grows on leased land close to the forest too are raided frequently by elephants. In recent years, several of his tribal brethren were killed by elephants. Understandably, Anil cannot fathom his father’s undying reverence.
Of an estimated elephant range of 2,687 sq km in northern West Bengal, only 34 per cent constitutes forests now. The rest has been occupied over the years by tea estates, labour lines, croplands, roads, highways, rail tracks and resorts catering to tourists visiting national parks, wildlife sanctuaries and tiger reserves. The fragmented landscape has led to unusually high conflict—on an average elephants kill over 50 people every year in northern West Bengal (for the entire state the average was 75 deaths per year between 2002 and 2012) and destroy thousands of hectares of crops and countless huts. Village residents and forest staff think elephants, once calm giants, have become very aggressive.
The aggression has become part of modern folklore in the labour lines narrated like a myth in the story of the “man-eating” elephant. The incident took place in 2002 on the India-Nepal border. In the monsoon of that year a mother elephant with her year-old calf migrated to the western edge of the Mechi-Sankosh corridor bordering Kalabari forests. Irate residents of a tea estate village captured the calf, burnt it alive and ate its flesh, the story goes. When the mother elephant realised what had happened she went mad with rage. In three days she killed 11 people. She ripped apart bodies as blood and flesh splattered over her trunk and mouth. People believed she was eating humans. She was declared rogue and on the fourth day shot dead by forest officials.
Even today elephants going into Nepal are regularly shot by people there, as they receive no compensation for damaged crop or deaths. In northern West Bengal, elephant deaths due to human wrath are relatively rare, though a few electrocution, poisoning and poaching cases have been reported. In fact, far more elephants die on railway tracks. Since 2004 speeding trains on the 168-km track between Siliguri and Alipurduar have killed 52 elephants (see ‘Killer tracks’).
The Indian Railways might have adorable jumbo Bholu as its official mascot, but it cares little about its ilk. In November last year, a speeding Kavi Guru Express ran over a herd of elephants inside the Chalsa forest range in northern West Bengal, killing six of them. Elephants were dragged about 100 m into the Jaldhaka rail-bridge. Since 1987, more than 130 elephants have been killed by trains in India, with nearly 90 per cent of the deaths concentrated in West Bengal, Assam, Odisha, Jharkhand and Uttarakhand. Since 2004, on just a single track running between Siliguri and Alipurduar in northern West Bengal, 52 elephants have died. The 168 km line, cutting across wildlife sanctuaries and national parks, was converted from metre gauge to broad gauge in 2004, increasing the frequency and speed of trains.
In December 2013, the Supreme Court directed the railways to reduce the speed of trains, stop goods trains during night hours and develop alternate routes on the 168 km long killer track. At the Chapramari railway crossing, about 3 km from the now infamous Jaldhaka bridge, there is a faded warning sign “Beware: Elephant Crossing Zone”. Rajesh Sharma, the lone guard at the gate, alerts the nearest station master whenever he sees elephant movement. During night, with no electricity, he cannot warn beforehand. If gates are lowered elephants clank on the metal posts. Sharma often wakes up and opens the gates for them. Till now passing herds have been kind to Sharma but a damaged staff quarter adjacent to Sharma’s post is a telltale sign.
Food for thought, numbers for chewing
Conservationists, people in villages and grassroots activists point to several factors leading to the unusually high human-elephant conflict in northern West Bengal. Fragmentation of habitat, depleting forest cover, lack of fodder for wildlife in forests and illegal logging are main factors, they say. However, the forest department denies illegal felling and lack of fodder. Instead, it argues that the elephant population is swelling and they are flocking to standing crops like youngsters taking to fastfood.
“The forests have ample food for elephants. But instead of, say, eating the bark of a tree which involves considerable effort, the elephants prefer ready-to-eat standing crops. The conflict intensifies because elephants are migratory in nature compared to bisons which stray but rarely,” contends Tapas Das, conservator of forests, wildlife circle (north).
Official data shows an abrupt rise in elephant numbers in northern West Bengal, from 300-350 in 2007 to 529 in 2010. (The state has a population of 650 elephants—a little more than 2 per cent of the wild elephant population in India.) But not everyone believes the figures. “By no stretch of imagination is this possible, not even if all adult females were breeding because their pregnancy period is a long 22 months,” says Heerak Nandy, a Kolkata-based conservationist and member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Commission on Ecosystem Management. By saying conflicts are rising due to rising elephant numbers, the forest department is only hiding its own mismanagement, he adds.
The only solution to resolve conflicts is to check the “rising” elephant numbers through immuno-contraception, thinks Ujjwal Bhattacharya, principal chief conservator of forests, wildlife. This is bound to raise eyebrows, notwithstanding the fact that the World Wide Fund for Nature organised a workshop in Siliguri last February, proposing the radical measure. “What will the department do if forest quality reduces further? Will it argue for culling to reduce elephant numbers?” asks Nandy.
Forest officials Down To Earth spoke to blamed the sick tea industry of north Bengal that forces workers to depend on forests for firewood collection and illegal felling. Members of wildlife squads, which rescue or chase away wild animals from human habitation, say people have finished off gurjong lata (a creeper used for making ropes) and purundi grass (Alpinia nigra) that are elephant fodder in forests. Few acknowledged the problem illegal saw mills pose, perhaps due to what transpired two years back inside Aranya Bhavan, the forest department headquarters in Kolkata.
In February 2012, Mirza Asghar Sultan assumed the top-most position in the state forest department, principal chief conservator of forests. Within four days he ordered that all sawmills in the state operating without licence be closed immediately. He was implementing a 2002 Supreme Court order but his directive created a storm. Sultan defied the then state forest minister Hiten Barman who wanted him to take back the directive. Northern West Bengal has nearly 700 unlicensed saw mills operating adjacent to national parks, wildlife sanctuaries and territorial forests. Sultan remained in his post till he retired eight months later in 2012, but all his powers were taken away and transferred to a subordinate, unprecedented in the history of Indian Forest Service.
“The forests have become sparse due to illicit logging and there is total political control of the forest administration,” Sultan, who served over 20 years in northern West Bengal, told Down To Earth. “It is difficult to take the emboldened loggers to task. Portions of Jalpaiguri, Buxa and Darjeeling, which used to have thick forest cover 30 years ago, are now vast blank patches.” Mismanagement by the department, including lack of fodder plantation for wildlife, he says, is a major reason for intense conflicts. Wildlife fodder plantation area of Chapramari Wildlife Sanctuary in Jalpaiguri is a sorry sight. Where the forests were cut for plantations, Lantana camara, an invasive weed, is prospering. Reports of the Forest Survey of India show that Jalpaiguri district, where the human-elephant conflict is most severe, lost 210 sq km of dense forest cover between 1991 and 2011. Aniket Modak of the Jalpaiguri-based non-profit Arohan thinks swelling numbers of herbivores like gaur (Indian bison) have also depleted fodder availability.
It is surprising there is little or no research on the conflict. “There is an urgent need to study herd behaviour, aggression and availability of elephant fodder in forests,” says Victor Bose, secretary of non-profit Dooars Jagran who has been working in Jalpaiguri since 1994. “What we are doing is short-term fire fighting. Where is the long-term solution to this problem?”
As clashes increase, Karnataka goes to the extent of capturing elephants
Author(s): M Suchitra
People of Alur complain they have been living under a virtual curfew. A herd of 25-30 elephants has been roaming the taluk in Hassan district of southern Karnataka. During the daytime they remain in coffee plantations and at night raid the crops. Nobody ventures out after sunset. “I don’t even dare step into the backyard of my house at night after harvest,” says V Ram, a paddy farmer in Purabyravanahally village who has narrowly escaped getting trampled by elephants several times.
Alur, along with adjoining taluks, is a human-elephant conflict hot spot. A mere 1 per cent area of this highly populated (0.1 million) taluk is under notified forests. The elephants, a solitary group, live in a tiny 5 sq km area of highly fragmented forests circumscribed by paddy fields and coffee plantations. They move around 300 sq km, and every year on an average kill three people. In the past 10 years, 35 people have been killed by elephants.
Given the small number of elephants, the rate of human deaths is high, observed the Elephant Task Force, set up by the Karnataka High Court, in its report in 2012. About 20 elephants have also been killed in retaliation or electrocuted during the period.
The conflict started in 1980 but in the last decade it has grown into a crisis. “The population of elephants is increasing and they are expanding their range too,” says H P Mohan, environmentalist and resident of Hemmige, one of the severely affected villages in Alur. The forest department’s reports prove him right. In the 1980s the elephant herd was smaller, with 13-15 members, all male. The number of affected villages has risen from 38 in 2007 to 79 in 2012.
People want the elephants to be relocated but the elephants, it seems, do not want to leave Alur. Three years ago, two elephants were captured and released in the thick forests close to Mudumalai in Tamil Nadu. Both returned within six months, travelling about 300 km.
Where did they come from?
Karnataka is home to about 6,200 wild elephants, the largest elephant population in the country. This population is almost entirely concentrated in the forests of the Western Ghats and the Eastern Ghats in the southern regions of the state.
Where did the Alur elephants come from? Or is it the other way round; people encroached on elephants’ natural habitat in Alur, causing conflicts? Why did the elephants return whenever they were relocated to large, thick forests?
Many like B A Jagannath, a coffee planter, believe elephants started moving to Alur after the construction of the Hemavathy dam in Hassan. The 2,810 sq km reservoir across the Hemavathy river, a major tributary of the Kaveri, was built in 1979. “When this big dam was constructed, vast areas, including forests, were submerged. Till then elephants never came to our area,” he says. Some conservationists say Alur was earlier a natural habitat of elephants and large-scale encroachment by people destroyed it. The dam compounded the problem.
The Elephant Task Force rules out both the arguments. Alur has not had a significant natural elephant habitat for at least four decades and the land submerged by the Hemavathy dam included only 0.36 sq km of notified forest, while the bulk of the land submerged was agriculture land, it says. Distribution of forests and human habitats in Alur do not differ much in the satellite images of 1973 and 2006.
The Alur elephants, according to the task force, could be a herd dispersed from a larger group in the southern forests. “There can be many reasons for elephants to move away from their original natural habitat. It can be degradation and fragmentation of forests, rise in the population of elephants, increased competition for resources or attraction of new habitats like croplands,” says Raman Sukumar, task force chairperson and head of the Centre For Ecological Studies, Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru.
To protect its elephants, the Karnataka government in 2002 constituted an elephant reserve, the Mysore Elephant Reserve, the largest in the country. About 98 per cent of the wild elephants in the state live in this reserve. However, only 30 per cent of the 8,460 sq km reserve is within the legally protected areas of national parks or wildlife sanctuaries. Field studies done by the task force in the reserve show that roads, pipelines, quarries and mini hydel projects have fragmented the forests and blocked elephant passages. Conflicts are reported from the fringes of the forests.
Just like in Alur, a small group of elephants has been wreaking havoc in Savandurga area of Tumkur district since 1998. Tumkur also has only a few patches of forests frequented by elephants from Bannerghatta National Park close to Bengaluru city. Expansion of Bengaluru causes disturbances in Bannerghatta, points out Gopalakrishna S P, scientific officer with the international non-profit A Rocha India. In July last year, a herd of elephants entered a school campus in Bengaluru’s Whitefield neighbourhood and killed four people. Kolar district, which is not a traditional elephant habitat, too, has been experiencing conflicts since 2012.
According to a study on the human-elephant conflict in the state led by Sanjay Gubbi of non-profit Nature Conservation Foundation, between April 2008 and March 2011 more than 60,000 incidences of crop loss were reported; 91 people were killed by elephants and 101 elephants died in retaliatory killings. A total of 9.4 per cent of the state’s geographic area, covering 25 of the 42 forest administrative divisions, was affected (see map). The state government spent R 13,89,04,778 as crop compensation.
Striking a balance
To conserve elephants and reduce the conflict, the task force has recommended a three-zone approach: one zone for elephant conservation, one for people from where elephants will be removed and another zone in which both can exist. It suggested setting up and effective management of physical barriers and giving legal protection to the areas within the elephant reserves in the first zone. Elephants will be captured and retained in captivity only in extreme situations like that of Alur and Savandurga, where conserving elephants is ecologically and economically unviable, says M D Madhusudan, ecologist and member of the task force. The forest department has started capturing the elephants in Alur.
Karnataka has accepted most of the task force recommendations, including giving legal protection to more areas and restoring elephant corridors. “However, the government has refused to set up an expert panel to plan, advise and assist in elephant conservation, saying the existing State Wildlife Board can do the job just as well,” says Sukumar. The state has also not fully accepted the recommendation to review all the clearances it has given to projects within the elephant reserve.
The state’s Project Elephant head hints at the stepmotherly attitude towards the Project. R Udaya Kumar, additional principal chief conservator of forests, confesses he is “totally in the dark” about the state’s policy and decisions on elephants. “Let me sheepishly admit I have neither administrative powers nor subordinate staff reporting to me.” The field staff reports only to the Project Tiger director. “The discrimination against elephants starts at the Centre.”
Author(s): Alok Gupta
Such is the terror of wild elephants in villages around Dalma Wildlife Sanctuary in Jharkhand that they are christened Osama bin Laden by the people there. Official records show in the past three years elephants have killed 12 people in Chandil block alone, just outside the sanctuary in Seraikella Kharsawan district.
Every year during monsoon when the Dalma Hills get slippery, elephants migrate to forests in neighbouring states and return as winter sets in. Showing the traditional routes of elephants on a map, Mangal Kacchap, range officer of the sanctuary, says about 350 elephants migrate to West Bengal through Purulia and Bankura, and to Odisha through Patamda. More than 30 years ago these elephants would rarely disturb the villages near the Dalma sanctuary, say people in Kherwan and Raghunathpur villages in Chandil.
Kacchap accepts that elephants in Dalma Hills are getting violent. According to him, one of the reasons is the disturbance caused by the Subarnarekha Multipurpose Project, which was to be completed by mid-1980s. Delays have escalated its cost to Rs 6,616 crore but the white elephant is not yet complete. The 85 km canal being constructed under the project crisscrosses Dalma sanctuary.
For 37 years, sporadic construction work kept damaging the traditional routes of the migrating elephants. The deep canal acted as a hindrance. According to forest officials, herds of elephants searching for alternative routes to get inside Dalma began passing through villages and National Highway-33 in Jamshedpur. On the way, hungry elephants started raiding fields and huts for food.
The Subarnarekha project is now trying to restore the migration routes of elephants by constructing 12 elephant corridors, two of which are ready. However, this alone might not be enough to lure them back to Dalma. Forest fires and crushers are other nuisance for the elephants. Frequent fires over the years have thinned the Dalma forest and depleted elephants’ food like jackfruits, bamboos and peepal leaves, says Kacchap. More than 50 crushers operate inside the sanctuary.
The Dalma elephants’ reign of terror extends up to Bankura in West Bengal. According to S Das, divisional forest officer, Bankura (north), elephants used to leave Bankura in January but for the past few decades herds have been staying till May or June. Das explains that in Bankura the forest cover is sporadic. “Elephants remain inside the forest in the day and raid villages at night.” On one such night on January 19, a herd ravaged hectares of potato fields and scores of huts in Dadhimukha village. When this correspondent visited the village, a mob of angry people charged towards the vehicle, ready to torch it. A flash of camera and waiving of Press card cooled them down. The people showed around 20 houses, two flour mills and a vast expanse of potato, cabbage and cauliflower fields destroyed by elephants the previous night. Elephants pulled down the wall of Vishwanath Mandal’s flour mill and ate nearly 600 kg of wheat flour. In 2013, rogue elephants killed six people in Barjora range.
Human-elephant conflict, aka development-conservation conflict
Author(s): Kumar Sambhav Shrivastava
India took one giant step towards elephant conservation in 1993. It launched Project Elephant to provide financial and technical support to states in protecting elephants, their habitats and corridors, and in addressing the human-elephant conflict. Ever since, it has been dragging its feet on following the spirit of the project.
Although government estimates—disputed by some scientists—show the number of elephants in India has increased from 25,000 to 29,000 since the inception of Project Elephant, elephant habitats have degraded and conflicts increased. The Elephant Task Force, constituted by the Union environment ministry in 2010 to recommend measures for a “secure future” of elephants, estimates nearly 400 people are killed by elephants and about 100 elephants lose their lives every year in the country. In contrast, only 150 people were killed annually in the 1980s by elephants, says Raman Sukumar of IISc who is member of Project Elephant’s steering committee. Elephants damage 0.8-1 million hectares of crops every year and more than 500,000 families of farmers are affected by it, says the task force.
Under Project Elephant, 32 elephant reserves—28 notified and four proposed—have been identified, covering nearly two-thirds (65,000 sq km) of the elephant ranges in India. Of this only 30 per cent area comes under national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, where non-forestry activities such as mining and industries are strictly regulated. The rest is under government forests and zones of human use and settlements.
Unlike tiger reserves, which are notified under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, elephant reserves are notified under an executive order of the government and, therefore, lack legal status and the safeguards that go with it. “This is a peculiar situation. The elephant, as a species, receives the highest protection our laws can offer, but the land over which it ranges does not have a similar level of protection,” says M D Madhusudan of Nature Conservation Foundation in Mysore.
As a result, several development projects have been started in elephant reserves and corridors without any scrutiny of their impact on elephants. As the Elephant Task Force observes, “Mining, especially open cast mining, has dealt a severe blow to elephant conservation in the country, especially in central India where most of the elephant areas in Singhbhum (Jharkhand), Keonjhar, Mayurbhanj, Dhenkanal, Angul and Phulbani (Odisha) have been severely fragmented, leading to increased human-elephant conflict and movement of elephants to adjoining states of Chhattisgarh and West Bengal.”
In the past few years, the move to regulate developmental activities in the elephant areas has met with opposition, not only from outside but also from within the governments. In 2012, the Centre withdrew its own directive to scrutinise the projects proposed in elephant habitats allegedly at the behest of the mining lobby (see ‘Elephantine Interests’,). Before that Odisha and Chhattisgarh, two of the states most affected by the human-elephant conflict, backtracked on notifying elephant reserves. In fact, the government has dumped most of the recommendations of the task force that called for a robust mechanism to manage the elephant habitats and regulate land use in them.
In March 2011, the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) issued new guidelines for non-forestry activities in wildlife habitats. The guidelines brought projects in the elephant reserves and corridors in the category requiring clearance from the Standing Committee of National Board of Wildlife (NBWL). Projects requiring forest diversion near protected areas by rule have to be placed before NBWL in addition to the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) that advises the ministry on forest diversions. However, since elephant reserves and corridors do not have legal recognition, projects falling in such forests escape the rigorous clearance process of NBWL.
As soon as the new guidelines were issued, a movement started within the ministry to revise them. Documents accessed by Down To Earth show the top officials in the ministry were against bringing elephant habitats under NBWL’s purview. “...the guidelines issued by the wildlife division have gone beyond what is mandated by WLPA (Wildlife Protection Act) or Supreme Court orders on the subject. The issue is becoming problematic and contentious,” wrote a senior officer in the ministry, in one of the file notings on October 31, 2011, calling for the revision of the guidelines. This was opposed by some junior officials.
The guidelines were revised in February 2012. This time they recommended seeking views of the forestry and wildlife divisions of the ministry, instead of the approval of NBWL, “on case to case basis” for the projects falling in elephant reserves and corridor.
When the new guidelines were issued in 2011, at least 19 mining projects inside Saranda forest were awaiting approval. The applicants included iron ore giants Arcelor Mittal, Jindal Group, Tata Steel, Bhushan Steel and Sesa Goa. In the past two years, the ministry gave “in principle” approval for mining in at least 1,600 ha in Saranda in favour of Jindal Group and Rungta Mines. On January 17 this year, FAC approved diversion of 636 ha in favour of Steel Authority of India Lt (SAIL). Close to 150,000 trees will be cut for all these mines.
Saranda forms the core of the Singhbhum Elephant Reserve, the first elephant reserve to be notified in the country in 2001. “Had the March 2011 guidelines been retained, all these projects would have faced rigorous scrutiny of their impact on wildlife. The industry and many in the government would not want that,” informs a conservationist associated with the project clearance process in MoEF. “I am told that Jharkhand has identified iron ore reserves in 600 sq km of the total 818 sq km forest in Saranda and big industrialists are the claimants of the benefits,” adds the conservationist.
FAC minutes show there was pressure on the ministry to clear mining projects in Saranda. The Cabinet Committee on Investment had written to MoEF, pushing for clearing SAIL’s project because it would bring investments worth Rs 4,700 crore into the region. This could be one of the reasons that for clearing these projects FAC went against its own 2009 directive. The directive said no new mining should be permitted in Saranda till a “comprehensive” Wildlife Management Plan is prepared for the region (see ‘SAIL gets pristine forest to mine’, Down To Earth, February 1-15, 2014).
Mining interests have prevailed over wildlife conservation in other states as well. In 2005, the Chhattisgarh government sent a proposal to the Centre for notifying an elephant reserve in Lemru forest in Korba district. The Centre approved the proposal in 2007. In February 2008, the state chief of the Confederation of Indian Industries wrote to the forest department that the proposed elephant reserve would block production of 40 million tonnes of coal a year.
“The Centre has been continuously sending the reminder to the state for notifying the elephant reserve but the state just would not respond,” says Laxmi Chouhan, director of Korba-based non-profit Sarthak. Internal communication within the state authorities accessed by Chouhan show the state has now dropped the plan of notifying the Lemru reserve.
In 2007, the Odisha government backtracked on notifying 4,216 sq km in Rayagada, Kandhmal and Kalahandi districts as South-Orissa Elephant Reserve and 10,516 sq km in mineral-rich Keonjhar and Sundargarh as Baitarani Elephant Reserve. Both the reserves were approved by the Centre the previous year. “Mega bauxite and iron ore mines were identified in these regions. These are the areas most affected by the human-elephant conflict now,” says Biswajit Mohanty of Wildlife Society of Odisha.
Task force ignored
In 2010, the task force recommended that the Project Elephant be converted into the National Elephant Conservation Authority (NECA), a statutory body under the Wildlife Protection Act on the lines of the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA). It would be mandatory for project developers to consult the elephant authority before undertaking developmental work in elephant reserves. It also recommended “ecologically sensitive area” status for elephant reserves under the Environment Protection Act. It called for elephant-specific environmental impact assessment of projects, and said mining leases in elephant reserves should be reviewed and if needed stopped.
For protecting elephant corridors, it suggested declaring them community/conservation reserves, managed by elected representatives, local citizens and wildlife experts. In zones of high conflict, it recommended that the responsibility of finding ways of alleviating loss of human and elephant lives be given to conflict management task forces comprising experienced foresters, scientists, wildlife vets and social scientists.
Declaring elephant the National Heritage Animal is pretty much the only substantive recommendation the government has implemented. Media reports in 2011 suggested that Jairam Ramesh, the then environment minister, did move a proposal to amend the Wildlife Protection Act to create NECA but the proposal was shot down by the Prime Minister’s Office due to opposition from the coal and steel ministries.
The task force also recommended increasing the budget for Project Elephant from Rs 100 crore in the 11th Five Year Plan to Rs 600 crore in the 12th Five Year Plan. The government allocated only Rs 200 crore.
The government has now appointed a committee to look into the recommendations of the task force, says a senior official in the Union environment ministry. “It is like killing the report. They form a committee to look into the recommendations of another committee only when they decide not to implement the recommendations,” says a member of the task force who wished not to be named.
As Prerna Singh Bindra, former member of the National Board of Wildlife, puts it, the government is failing to realise the gravity of the situation. “Where is the vision for conserving our national heritage animal?” she asks.
Map, divide, manage
The challenge of conserving elephant habitats is that their ranges straddle huge swathes of land—more than double the total area of tiger reserves. “The first step is to update our knowledge of elephant distribution,” says Madhusudan, who is also part of a committee looking at measures for strengthening elephant habitats and corridors. “Once that is done, we need to assess the extent of legal protection available to different parts of the elephant’s range.”
“To set aside the elephant’s entire 110,000 sq km range as protected area is wishful thinking in a densely populated country like ours,” Madhusudan adds. He suggests a tiered approach, where critical ranges will receive uncompromised protection under the Wildlife Protection Act. “In multiple-use areas such as revenue or private land, we need to persuade stakeholders to adopt land uses compatible with elephant conservation, using legal options such as eco-sensitive zones.”
Legal regulation of land use will require states’ cooperation. “One reason NECA could not come through is states opposed it,” points out Vivek Menon, executive director of Wildlife Trust of India. “Once you create an authority for elephants, large chunks of land will come under the Centre’s regulation. States have already been at loggerheads with NTCA; they did not want another authority to dictate terms on their lands.”
Sukumar suggests extending the Karnataka task force recommendation of dividing conflict areas into conservation, co-existence and elephant-removal zones to other parts of the country. In places where people voluntarily want to relocate because of increasing conflicts and in corridors most critical for the survival of elephants, he suggests measures like voluntary land acquisition and relocation of people. In the co-existence zones, which have an interface of settlements and elephant habitats, people need to be roped in for conservation and conflicts mitigated through site-specific measures, says Sukumar. And in places where the price of the elephant’s presence is too high—for example, areas under plantations and crop—the elephants should be captured and translocated or retained in captivity.
Besides, ways of handling conflict need to be reconsidered. Chasing away elephants with searchlights, crackers or guns makes them more aggressive, says Vidya Athreya of Wildlife Conservation Society of India.
A few successful examples
In the Annamalai hills in Coimbatore the number of killings by elephants have been halved by putting in place a mechanism of monitoring elephant movement and informing people about it. “We studied the conflict in the region and found that most human deaths happened due to accidental encounters with elephants on roads,” says M Ananda Kumar of Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF). The NCF team with the forest department then created an information network. It tracks elephant movement and alerts people through scrolls on local television channels, bulk SMSes and blinking lights on towers. Whenever a person spots elephants he or she sends an alert via SMS and the red lights on the nearest tower start blinking. There are several such towers in the area.
Bandipur National Park in Karnataka efficiently used physical barriers to restrict elephants. Apart from setting up electric fences and trenches, people in the region were involved in the management of the barriers, points out Sanjay Gubbi of Nature Conservation Foundation in Bengaluru. This brought down the number of compensation claims from 8,870 in 2008-09 to 860 in 2011-12, he adds.
MoEF flouts its own order by expanding mine in Saranda without wildlife management plan
First-of-its-kind study in India carried out in Karnataka finds number of villages affected by human-elephant conflict and the compensation paid by the government was almost the same around protected areas and non-protected areas
Sometimes elephants raid crops even when there is a lot of food in the forests
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