A biologist employed with a non-profit in the North East describes her organisation’s efforts at reducing negative encounters between elephants and people
In Assam, people and elephants share their lands and have lived in harmony for ages. The spiritual belief and tolerance of people have played a major role in enabling this coexistence.
Assam has always been a stronghold of Asian elephant populations. But with shrinking habitats, changing land-use patterns, urbanisation and a burgeoning human population, human-elephant confrontations have increased manifold, often leading to undesirable interactions.
The negative interactions are in the form of crop and property damages, loss of human lives, retaliatory killings and poaching to name a few. Most of the affected people are often poverty-stricken farmers and villagers.
With their lives and crops at stake, they get infuriated and their reverence towards elephants gradually ceases. This attitude towards elephants undermines conservation efforts to safeguard the species.
Cause of worry
If I am to quote the Assam forest minister, about 750 people and 250 elephants died unnatural deaths in the state between 2010 and 2018 as a result of human-elephant conflict (HEC). In 2019, approximately 75 human and 60 elephant deaths were reported from the state.
Of these unnatural elephant deaths occurring over the time period, the most prevalent cause is electrocution. Of late, human-induced elephant deaths using illegal electric fencing powered through mains or high-tension sagging wires is on rise in the state.
In areas with a history of crop-raiding and human deaths, villagers have installed illegal electric fences surrounding their crop fields or habitations. They draw electricity from high-tension wires or domestic lines illegally, for fencing the desired area and when elephants come in contact with these, they are electrocuted to death. There have even been instances of human deaths when people have accidentally bumped into these fences.
Aaranyak steps in
The organisation I work for, Aaranyak, has been studying HEC across Assam. Various site-specific mitigation measures were applied to reduce the incidents of conflict. Some worked and some failed.
The challenge with mitigating HEC is that one needs to improvise the methods continuously to keep up with elephants. They are intelligent beasts and soon adapt to deterrent measures.
Villagers mostly resort to traditional measures of crop guarding, chasing elephants and scaring them with fire-crackers, stone pelting etc. The installation of electric fences is comparatively new in this part of the country and has yielded high results. Thus, the use of electric fences to ward-off elephants is on the rise.
In 2014, in a site called Subankhata, on the eastern part of the Manas Tiger Reserve, Aaranyak held a dialogue with and convinced local communities to convert their illegal electric fences into solar-powered electric fences that are non-fatal.
With active participation from the villagers, a 14-kilometre-long fence was erected that benefitted about 1,000 households as well as approximately 100-odd elephants that inhabit the area. Six years down the line, the fences are still functional and no incidents of elephant or human deaths have occurred in the area.
In later years, a few more km of such fences were installed with improvised techniques. A total of 24.5 km of solar-powered electric fences were erected at two sites in Baksa district and 7.5 km in Nagaon district with support from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, and Elephant Family India Foundation.
In another instance, a solar-powered electric fence was installed in the premises of a primary school in Nagaon district, with the support of Center for Large Landscape, Montana University, USA.
With this effort, about 10,000 households have benefitted. The fences are erected in such a manner that they encompass villages, without hampering the passage of elephants, thus fostering coexistence between both species.
The mechanism of the fences is simple; when dusk sets in, the power is put on. The elephants coming in contact with the wires get a mild shock, which deters them from raiding crop fields or destroying properties.
Besides reducing people’s economic losses, this setup also has a significant effect on their social life. During crop season, most men were out guarding the crops from wild elephant herds. The prolonged deprivation of sleep often had a negative impact on health and social life.
Solar-powered electric fences secured the villagers’ crops and houses. They could now spend peaceful nights. This, in turn, reduced the hostility towards the elephants and facilitated human-elephant coexistence.
The key to the success of the solar-powered fences was the involvement and capacity building of local communities. Villagers took an active part in installing each fence — they provided materials such as wooden / bamboo poles, devoted time to constructing the fence and took responsibilities of maintenance.
Aaranyak pitched in with technical know-how, equipment and capacity building. In the future, we plan to reach out to more such affected areas and help them resolve HEC.
Nonetheless, Aaranyak is ‘buying time’ by installing solar-powered fences. At the same time, we are working tirelessly for long-term solutions to resolve HEC by securing and restoring elephant habitats and corridors.
Aaranyak also strongly advocates and urges competent authorities to consider HEC as a ‘disaster’, as the lives claimed by it have surpassed death tolls due to natural disasters like floods in Assam. The ‘disaster’ status will ensure more fund flow and better mitigation.
The model has worked well in Uttar Pradesh. In recent times, to mitigate HEC, the government of Assam has launched anti-depredation squads of the forest department, who are well-trained and better equipped to deal with HEC.
We hope that with proactive and pragmatic approaches, we can minimise HEC in the state and usher coexistence.
Alolika Sinha is a wildlife biologist at Aaranyak, a non-profit based in Northeastern India. Views expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth
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