Battle zone: Humans vs elephants

Afterwards, an eerie silence envelops the field. There is only the crop -- no longer standing -- and the heavy tread gouged in the mud. This is not what the farmer wanted. Nor is this what the elephant intended. But somewhere else, these signs will appear again. And the two might antagonistically meet. nitin sethi on elephant-human conflicts in the post-Project Elephant era

Published: Monday 31 March 2003

Battle zone: Humans vs elephants

A serene evening in a village< (Credit: Mitha)

The herd was on its seasonal trampling and crop-raiding mission on June 23, 2002. By midday the forest department radios were crackling, with anxious rangers and beat officers leaving frantic and confused messages. News spread fast. An elephant had killed seven people in Tukrabusti and Marapurbusti villages in Panighatta range, two predominantly Santhal villages adjoining tea gardens. The people were shaken. This was a violation of protocol - elephants, it was well known and believed throughout the country, raided villages only at night. The deaths were usually at the hands (or feet!) of solitary bulls, not elephants that moved in a herd. Many were accidents. Since 1997, 28 people had been killed in the small fragmented patch of forest called the Kurseong division, and people are used to the periodic trauma.

But the 2002 incident shook them. They prepared to stay on vigil through the night, keeping their torches, crackers and drums handy. That night, there were no other incidents on the Indian side. The 'killer' crossed the international border midnight of June 24. It killed three people in Bahundangi village of Jhapa. Before daybreak, it returned to Indian territory and killed two people in Chegabusti.

As dawn broke, the news spread. Authorities managed more angry complainants than they could handle. People approached local politicians, who called up 'their people' in Kolkata. Calls from Kolkata began to pour into administrative offices of Darjeeling and Jalpaiguri. Within hours the entire region was awake to the incident. The media sniffed a story.

The killings were classified as 'sensational', the elephant 'murderous', and the region as 'terror-struck'. Hysteria took over.

The forest department intensified the search for the killer elephant. The divisional forest officer, Raju Das, took the decision to shoot it down without waiting for the mandatory written permission from the chief wildlife warden of West Bengal. A retired army officer, A Chauhan, was asked to accompany the search party with his much-talked-of magnum gun. He was about to become a new age Jim Corbett. On the morning of June 25, the rogue was to kill its last victim in Bamanpokhri forest village. It was then tracked down inside the forest, identified (or guessed to be the same one) and shot. Some reports say just once with the magnum, between his eyes and some say repeatedly, till it slumped to the ground in a heap. The rogue died. People had little time to sigh in relief; the harvest season was not over yet.

Beast of many parts
This is one example of the mythology of elephants in India. A handful of theories still do the rounds about why the elephant went berserk. Was this an aberration? At a ripe old age of 80, Debashish Chaudhri, resident of a village on the periphery of the Mahananda sanctuary, provides a perspective: "Crop raids, broken houses and crashed walls have been routine. But this single animal mocked at all social constructs. For some time, people will justify it as an aberration."

It is easy to offer the 'one mad elephant' logic. It is quite another task for a villager to explain why the 300-500 elephants of northern wb walk around the entire region, raiding fields and eating the crop at will. What drives them out of the forests? Why do they prefer standing crops?

Further east, in the adjoining state of Assam, the situation is worse. Despair has turned people violent. In 2001, 17 elephants were poisoned to death in Sonitpur district of Assam within a span of 70 days. There was no reason to suspect poachers - the tusks weren't removed. It was exasperated villagers. On the body of one elephant were painted the words: Thaan chor, Laden (which translates to 'paddy thief, Osama bin Laden').

This wasn't the first case of its kind to be 'recorded'; certainly not the last. The next year saw three cases of poisoning.

The volume of crop loss is remarkable. Karnataka is one of the few states to maintain records of crop damage. It has compensated farmers to the tune of Rs 2.42 crore between 1997 and 2001. West Bengal paid Rs 71.63 lakh for crop damage and human casualties in 1999-2000. Assam does not maintain similar records. In many parts of the country, the harvest of the winter crop is not the time to celebrate but to prepare for a long battle. Tentuli village of Orissa's Keonjhar district shifts to the safety of tree houses. They then guard their dear ones from the wrath of elephants with drums and fire till the break of dawn. Normal life of villagers in nine blocks of the district remains paralysed during the harvest. In Debabandha village of Keonjhar, Dibakar Juang has found a new job at the age of 75 - tracking elephant movements. If he feels assured that elephants are at least 30 km away from the village he sleeps alongside his grandchildren. Else he keeps vigil, for the sake of his life and the paddy crop.

Diet problems
Two theories abound as to why the elephants so often come to the fields to eat. One theory, backed by field studies carried in the southern ranges, propounds that it is optimal feeding strategy that leads the elephants to take the high risk of entering fields. Raman Sukumar, who is at the forefront of the arguments favouring this theory, explains. "In the larger intact habitats, it is the male that is more prone to raiding crops. The females, as long as their main areas are intact, are not a problem. But as you fragment the habitat the frequencies of raiding by the elephants also start to increase." In highly fragmented habitats, the females also begin to raid while passing from one patch to another and the frequency of raiding by females in herds can go as high as that by bulls.

His theory - called amongst the scientists as the high risk, high yield theory - propounds that the males, in order to increase their reproductive chances, are prepared to take higher risks and therefore become habitual crop raiders. Sukumar's research shows that in per capita terms it is the males in the populations that cause greater damage. He mentions research conducted in Sri Lanka that shows that 85 per cent of the crop raiding was carried out by males even though the males only constitute 15 per cent of the population.

But another group of scientists believe that it is forest degradation that causes the crop depredation and not any optimum foraging tactic. Ajay Desai, one of the scientists involved with this aspect of elephant studies, says. "Crop raiding is a result of habitat loss, fragmentation and degradation - all processes that result in depletion of resources for elephants. Local over abundance (population growth in good areas) can also put pressure on elephants as there are too many elephants and this can result in some elephants starting to raid." He contends that usually female elephants that have not lost a significant part of their home range will not raid crops when there is crop protection. Bulls may however end up close to fields and may be more committed crop raiders; they are single and large and do not have to worry about safety being of calves like females. Even here it must be remembered that not all males raid crops - only some do.

Desai's research, conducted along with other colleagues contends, that though males may be responsible for greater per capita damage, herds are responsible for greater total damage. S S Bist, director, Project Elephant, says, "Both the theories have their implications for management and are useful. Needless to say, the area under study and the terrain conditions make a difference."

Desai says, "Where home ranges are totally lost the herds can end up wandering. A typical case is that of the herd that went off into Andhra Pradesh from Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Initially there was a lot of conflict but eventually the herd settled in the Trupati forests. But when similarly a herd wandered into Madhya Pradesh, the elephants caused a lot of problems. they were eventually captured and removed."

The elephant moving out of its disturbed habitat into nearby forested patches is slowly turning into an ominous trend. Till some years ago the elephants in South Bengal were temporary visitors; now they have begun spending more and more time in the reforested areas, travelling out of the degraded Dalma wildlife sanctuary in adjoining Bihar. The elephants are also recent visitors to Chhatisgarh. They have created considerable crop damage and deaths in the state. The state forest department is at a loss to understand why the beast has decided to bless them.

It is for these reasons that a question has begun to pop up in the minds of the scientists and forest officials involved with elephants. The question they ask, sometimes in hushed tones, is: Is there space for the 28, 000-odd elephants in India today?

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