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Kerela elephant tragedy mirrors Assam’s alarming man-animal conflict situation

The recent inhuman incident in Kerala where a pregnant elephant died after consuming a crackers-filled-pineapple created nationwide furore. People all over the country were distressed at the inhumanity shown towards the innocent animal. This heinous crime has been duly criticised by civil society and the govt has intervened to investigate the matter properly. A man has been arrested for his alleged involvement, as investigations continue, the state Kerala Forest Minister said.

There are certain grey areas that have emerged regarding the farmers’ attempt to protect their lands from wild boars with these crackers. Even though it cannot justify the killing of the elephant, this issue has brought forward the macro aspect of man-animal conflict going on in the country and in Assam especially.

Keywords: Man vs Wild

The humans vs animals superset can be broken down to sub-sets that include loss of habitat, lack of forest sustainability, encroachment, industrialisation, social insensitivity, government lethargy among others. Inside Northeast took a deep dive into each of the aforementioned aspects to understand the prevalent situation in Assam with regard to elephants. For that, we interviewed stakeholders working at different levels and within the government.

Speaking to Inside Northeast, Jyoti Prasad Das, an environmentalist addressed key concerns plaguing the state. He stated that there are many elephant corridors in the Northeast including Bogapani, Golai, Kaziranga, Kanchanbari, Paanbari, and “these are getting at least some protection”. Nevertheless, there is evidence of direct violation in other pockets in Assam. “Look at the construction of the wall by Numaligarh refinery on the elephant corridor, what’s the current status of it?”, asked Das.

Throughout Assam, man – elephant clashes are on the rise but its evidently more in Goalpara, Udalguri, Sonitpur, and Golaghat districts. The existing corridors have been blocked but the less spoken facet is that their traditional movement tracks have been altered along with it.

Targetted study: Historical angle

Reducing the sample size, Inside Northeast tried to investigate the initial findings on Golaghat which has been constantly on the news over man-animal conflicts. “There are elephant corridors here (in Golaghat) but only in name. All have encroached illegally”, said Niranjan Bhuyan, who has spent more than 10 years in elephant conservation.

As per locals, there are increased instances of elephants destroying the houses of the villagers. To understand the current situation, Bhuyan took us back to the 90s when the Numaligarh refinery was set up in the region. According to him, this caused an imbalance in the Kalioni river ecosystem. Following this, the vicinity of the Deo Pahar which connects to Karbi Anglong saw increased settlements of humans.

The Deopahar hillock is a part of the Deopani reserve forest. The Deopani reserve forest covers a total area of 133.45 hectares and is very rich in flora and fauna. The Deopani reserve forest area is an Elephant corridor and is famous for a False Hemp Tree.

The fallout of the intrusion of this eco-sensitive zone was that elephants moved towards the hills of Karbi Anglong where they again faced opposition from the locals. This entire experience made the elephants nomadic herds detached from their own habitat. The subsequent encroachment destroyed the carrying capacity of the forest which led to the animals roaming about for more food. The carrying capacity is the number of people, animals, or crops that a region can support without environmental degradation.

Along with that came tea industrialisation to further damage the sustenance. “People stopped all other cultivation like banana and started focussing on tea over the years as it reaped more profits”, said Bhuyan. This created a conversion of forested lands into tea gardens in Upper Assam. The elephants in the end had no place to go. The unsustainability of the forest, the lack of tracks and food, initiated what is now a common problem in the region: man-elephant conflict.

The govt angle and the contemporary scene

To get a perspective from the top end, Inside Northeast approached a senior forest official who was quite vocal about the abysmal conditions. “The Golaghat reserve forest areas are 94,000 hectares approx and so far around 87,000 have benn encroached”, said the officer. He then mentioned the Nambor Wildlife Sanctuary which stretches as far as Karbi Anglong. The wildlife sanctuary covers an area of 37 km2 and is considered a sensitive ecological area. Yet like all other Wildlife Sanctuaries of Assam, it suffers from the omnipresent threat of humans.

“The length is 32 km sq but the breadth is only 4 km now due to encroachment for different reasons like tea gardens, house construction, timber extraction and poaching as it contains a sizable population of leopards,” said the forest official. Another worry is that there is no bamboo available in the jungles anymore which the elephant in Assam traditionally used to feed on. They have been cut down illegally along with timber. Environmentalists have protested the systematic deforestation of this area, but the forest department lacks the resources to stop it.

Just a few days back, Inside Northeast reported from the same sanctuary that a forest guard named Mohibur Hussain had been attacked brutally. His hand was cut by alleged timber smugglers who were illegally felling trees in the forested lands of Golaghat. This revealed the fact that the rangers were not secure enough to protect themselves, leave alone the trees. Inside Northeast has already done a story at the link mentioned below.

Also read: Assam: Guard on duty brutally attacked at Nambor Sanctuary

Environmentalist Niranjan Bhuyan corroborated the govt officer and added another dimension. Stone and sand mining have been carried out in Nambor, without following proper guidelines. The JCBs cause wild animals to panic and come out of their habitat. He also highlighted two other problems, firstly the drains in the tea garden are deep and elephants fall in them leading to injuries, at times death. Secondly, electrocution can be caused by the lines laid by the electricity board. He alleges that 85 elephants as well as 90 people have died in 2019/20 because of such complications. The data has not been verified.

The elephants with their corridors and movement tracks destroyed and forests unstabilised then enter civilisation and confront the poor villagers out of compulsion. Moreover, they are teased by the locals which further makes them hostile. As per the elephant resource persons, there is a lack of social sensitivity regarding the gravity of the circumstances. “I have never seen an elephant attack a forest ranger because they never get violent unless threatened,” the forest officer said. This was the case when an elephant ventured into Guwahati from the Amchang Wildlife Sanctuary and was literally “harassed” by the people, although the giant maintained its calm.

Going forward

On June 5th, World Environment Day was celebrated to create awareness on sustainability. Politicians in their bright khadi colours took to Twitter to promote these topics, which is appreciated. But, the ground reality cannot be encapsulated in 200 characters on Twitter. Assam is now heading towards the time when wildlife and forest will remain just a state department with occasional jobs and the animals who actually live within the forests will have moved out.

The officer whom we interviewed, summed it up: “There’s is only one way out. Human beings will have to co-exist with elephants. Otherwise, in the next 5 years at least 4 to 5 people will die each day from this conflict in Golaghat”. This statement might be overestimated but so did the corona pandemic until February.

Course of action

Ending on a positive note on the occasion of World Environment Day, Inside Northeast has come out with few recommendations to solve the crisis (Inputs taken from the experts)

  • Provide shelterbelts to elephants in tea garden wetland areas as suggested by senior officers of Forest Department
  • Electricity board needs to be vigilant with their power lines especially in corridors and movement tracks
  • Create social sensitivity towards animals, among the locals
  • Govt intervention to ban smuggling and illegal encroachments
  • Provide alternative opportunities to vulnerable people who are dependent on illegal trade – options such as eco-tourism and promotion of local produce
  • Proper remuneration to be provided in line with Disaster Management Systems as opposed to Wildlife.
  • Increase the staff efficiency of forest guards and ensure their safety
  • Beating up of wild animals by mobs should be considered an offense akin to poaching

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