Elephants are an integral part of Indian culture. They are generally referred to as Ganesh, the elephant headed Hindu God. As per Hindu mythology, obeisance to Ganesh is obligatory before paying reverence to any other God. The elephants have been an influence on every aspect of life in India. Unfortunately however we have today created a situation where this courtly giant has come into conflict with us. Human Elephant Conflict (HEC) is the biggest environmental challenge in the elephant habitat in India.
On a cold winter morning in early 1997 I had my first encounter with wild elephants outside a wildlife sanctuary. A small herd of about 20 elephants was crossing through the tea estate. It was indeed an awesome sight with the babies carefully herded in the middle by the adults, as the herd made its way through the tea gardens. The calm of the morning was shattered by a loud bang of a firecracker followed by clamor from the labor lines nearby. The elephants panicked and changed direction and within minutes were herded once again as they approached another habitation. By the time I started feeling the bright morning sun; the herd had probably lost its bearings and had assembled in a shaded area within the tea garden. The adults had formed a circle around the young calves. A big tusker stood outside the protective cordon and charged at any human movement towards them. Even though I would have loved to stay put and observe these beautiful beasts, I had to return to cater to my professional responsibilities.
At noon I managed to squeeze in a visit to my friends and immediately regretted the sight. The handsome tusker was visibly at his wit’s end. The fatigue was evident. His charge was now more of a stagger. The rest of the heard was in no better state, their skin parched as they were bearing the brunt of the most uncivilized actions of the social animal. A crowd of over a few hundred onlookers had gathered at the sight. A constant volley of stones with an occasional firecracker was being hurled at the bewildered herd. My protest went unheeded. I was aghast as to how people can be so cruel to this Gentle Giant.
Not very long back in May 2005 , a day after my daughter’s first birthday, I was planning on an extended nap well into the morning when I was informed at 6 AM that an elephant had fallen into a pit. A hideous sight greeted me. An elephant, not more than a few years old, had slipped into an open well. Only his trunk and forelimbs were above the ground. He was stuck in the mouth of the well around its waist. What made this gruesome sight ghastly was that people were hammering away at this incapacitated beast with rods and sticks. Some were even trying to jab his eyes with bamboo sticks. Thanks to the help of the committed team of volunteers from Dam Dim Tea Estate, we not only managed to ward the ominous crowd but also managed to safely rescue the trapped elephant.
The incidents narrated above are not uncommon in the tea growing areas of North Bengal. I have been a witness to widespread devastation caused by the elephants. It is impossible to explain the virtues of conservation to a poor family who has just lost its entire crop of Paddy to a maundering herd of wild elephants. I definitely do not condone the acts of cruelty against the elephants but after spending a decade studying the problem cannot affix the blame on the poor population of the area.
Human Elephant Conflict or HEC is the biggest environmental tragedy of both the elephant and human population of this area. The Forests in Dooars comprising Buxa Tiger Reserve, Teesta and Torsa river areas, Baikumthapur, Kalimpong, Jalpaiguri and Coochbehar forest divisions have an estimated elephant population of about 500. The vegetative degeneration in addition to innumerable human habitations inside the forests has rendered the existing habitats redundant. The elephants are forced move out of the forests in search of food. Paddy and maize, the major crops of the area are ideal fodder for the hungry herds. The locals use spears, arrows, firecrackers and even firearms to drive away the elephants. Invariably the Elephant gets injured and unable to bear the pain goes berserk, causing even more damage
Elephants are big, and they are nomads. The huge physical structure of the elephant demands a massive diet, up to 250 kgs daily plus huge quantities of water, which essentially dictates that it cannot remain stationery in one patch of forest; else it will degrade the forest, and eat itself out of its home. Elephants, therefore, follow ancient migratory routes, generally 1-3 km long corridors, which link elephant habitats.
Moreover, the forests have become too fragmented even to support the 300-odd elephants, thus the elephants are compelled to move through tea gardens, villages and agricultural fields killing more than 60 persons annually. In contrast to the figures for north Bengal, only 30 to 40 deaths are caused by human-elephant conflict in southern India, even though the elephant population is more than 20 times the Wild elephant population of North Bengal.
Elephant migration is dictated by ancient instincts; only the forest it knew is now tea gardens. Traumatized and starved, it marauders crops that come in its way, occasionally killing angry, helpless people protecting their homes and livelihood.
Another major lure for the elephants is the liquor. At times, elephants only come to the labor lines to have their fill of hadia, the rice beer brewed extensively by the tribal population of the Tea gardens in the area. A tipsy elephant is no means better off than his human counterpart. The loss to life and property caused by these few dipsomaniac rogues is much more than that caused by elephants in herds.
The mobile squads of the forest department assigned to the task of alleviating the HEC are under equipped, under staffed and untrained. One thing that they don’t lack is courage and conviction. It is not easy to herd wild elephants from inhabited areas with a risk of attacks from not only the wild animals but also the bereaved human population. Unfortunately, despite their commendable dedication, the approach of the squad is not proactive. Their activities are confined to chasing away the wild herds as and when they venture out of the forests. In most cases they end up driving them from one human habitation to another till the elephants themselves choose the return to the forests at daybreak. Even the means used by them are no lees cruel. The sight of mammoth bodies riddled with splinter from 12 bore gunshots is horrendous.
A well-trained volunteer group in every village/tea garden can minimize the detrimental effects of HEC. The volunteer group at Dam Dim Tea Estate has been very effective. The loss of life and property in this particular estate has been minimized despite its location on a migration corridor.
Another major contributor to HEC is the lack of socioeconomic development in the area. The virtues of conservation cannot be explained to an empty stomach. A large number of people enter the forests illegally to collect firewood, graze cattle and at times even hunt, thus denuding the forests. Allure of these shortcuts to economic prosperity gets amplified with the lack of other avenues for progress. The organizations involved with socioeconomic development schemes can be effective conduits for spreading environmental awareness.
The long-term solution lies in providing a corridor for the Elephants to migrate between habitats. The option of using the vast tracts under tea plantations remains untapped. Elephants do not eat tea leaves and also avoid walking through the bushes, normally walking across the footpaths. They do cause extensive damage to shade trees which can easily be avoided by planting some specific species in these corridors. I believe a study was carried out to map the corridor, but like so many other conservation schemes in our country, has not been a priority for further progress.
A few days back while driving along the highway across the Gorumara Wild life Sanctuary, a villager waved to stop me. My inquisitive glance was met by shouts of Maha Kaal, Maha Kaal. As I shifted my gaze to the road ahead, I saw a huge elephant standing right next to the road. An elephant on the road was an ordinary sight in these parts, what intrigued me was “Maha Kaal.” The villagers were referring to the elephant as Maha Kaal. As per Hindu mythology, Maha Kaal is the Lord of Death. In view of the wide spread destruction caused by the wild herds, it was not difficult for me to rationalize this new label. The burning issue is — can we allow this transformation of Ganesh into Maha Kaal?
Ankur Chaturvedi is general manager operations in charge of export at Emami Ltd in Kolkata, India.