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
Home ranges and movement pattern of elephants are yet to be scientifically updated but evidence shows elephants across India are moving into uncharted territories. In the past two decades they have dispersed from their traditional habitats to places that did not have resident elephants. A large part of the new territories was occupied in the past 10-12 years. Most of the areas newly inhabited by elephants are also conflict hot spots
“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.
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.
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.