Wildlife & Biodiversity

Assam’s human-elephant conflict: Legally protecting habitats, natural fencing can save the ‘gentle giants’

Elephants are part of Assam's culture & folklore but habitat loss is driving negative interactions with humans 

By Jigyas Boruah
Published: Monday 19 June 2023
Photo: Jigyas Boruah

In recent years, Assam has seen multiple cases of human-elephant conflict, many resulting in deaths of both. Loss of elephant habitat due to anthropogenic activities is the leading cause for the negative interactions. 

But this was never the case and elephants are an inseparable part of Assamese culture and folklore. In Mahabharata, Bhagadatta, the son of Narakasura, the king of Kamrupa, was mentioned as the best wielder of the elephant squad. His elephant’s name was Supratika. 

During the Ahom reign, under Bor Roja Ambika’s patronage, Hastividyarnava, a famous work on elephantry was composed by Sukumar Barkaith. 

The pachyderms also have a prominent place in several religions and folklores of other part of India, with stories and beliefs about them existing since time immemorial. 

The most recognisable among them is probably the story of Ganesha, the elephant-headed Hindu god. The animal has a divine ancestry, according to Hindu mythology, which attributes its birth to Brahma, the god of creation. 

The Vedas (1500-600 BCE) and the epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata (1100-700 BCE), are perhaps the earliest Indian texts that mention elephants. Ancient Indian texts, such as the Gajasastram and the Hastiayurveda, dealt with the protection and welfare of the elephant. Treatises on statecraft such as the Arthashastra mentioned the setting up of gajavanas (elephant preserves), the first ever protected-area systems in the country or perhaps in the world. 

Elephants were also found in Indian as well as Assamese ancient architecture. One of the most striking features of the Hayagriva Madhava Temple of the Monikut Hill in Assam’s Kamrup district is the continuous row of elephants akin to the stone-cut temple of Ellora. 

The Constituent Assembly of India adopted the elephant as its symbol and in 2010, the central government declared the Indian elephant the country’s national heritage animal.

At present, elephants are found only in two continents of the world — Asia and Africa. Two species, the Savanna (or bush) elephant and the forest elephant are found in Africa. The four subspecies of Asian elephants are Indian, Sri Lankan, Sumatran and Borneo. Asian elephants are relatively smaller in size. 

In India, Assam has the second-highest number of elephants after Karnataka, according to the 2017 Elephant census.  

An adult elephant consumes about 240 kilogrammes of plant material over an 18-hour day. They move continuously from one place to another in search of food allowing the vegetation that they leave behind to regenerate in a natural cycle. They eat almost 59 species of woody plants and 23 grass species. 

But a loss of their habitat due to human activities deforestation, construction of linear infrastructure, monoculture plantations, mining and overexploitation of forest resources leads to human-elephant conflicts in Assam as well as the rest of India. 

Due to sinking habitat, they don’t find enough to eat, forcing them to come out from their natural habitat to human settlements in search of food. They raid crops, damage houses and, in some cases, threaten human life. 

A report released by the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, showed that from 2014-2022, 3,938 human lives were lost to wild elephant attacks and in Assam, the number was 561. 

Several elephants also lost their lives in the conflict. The main cause of the elephant's death was electrocution. In some cases, people who were in regular conflict with elephants also poisoned them. 

This has resulted in a decrease in the elephant population. The International Union for Conservation of Nature declared them ‘endangered’. 

Elephants are considered ecosystem engineers. They help to maintain the integrity of their forest and grassland habitats. To protect nature and the environment, the protection of these ‘gentle giants’ is also important. 

The Government of India conserves the elephants mainly through the centrally sponsored Project Elephant launched in 1992. Organisations such as Wildlife Trust of India, World Wide Fund for Nature-India, Asian Nature Conservation Foundation, Nature Conservation Foundation and Aaranyak also work for the protection of elephants. 

To protect elephants and reduce human-elephant conflicts, the most important measure is to grant legal protection to the remaining habitat and ecological corridors. This can reduce contact with humans and provide them with their natural habitat and resources. 

To restrict them from entering into crop fields and households, solar fences and agriculture-based deterrents such as rich gourd cultivation, chili cultivation and lemon cultivation can be used. 

Awareness among the fringe villages — those most affected by this conflict — can be used to inform people on how to coexist with elephants and use different measures to reduce conflicts. 

The forest department should ensure the timely release of compensation for the loss of crops, households, among other steps. Early warning systems such as Global Positioning System collaring can also help in conflict reduction. 

This is the time to think about how we coexist with elephants and reduce human-elephant conflict and how we can help them to flourish in this world. 

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth.

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