Two elephants, including a calf, died an unnatural death at Hamiltonganj range near Buxa Tiger Reserve in West Bengal on August 12, World Elephant Day. Another death of an adult elephant was reported on August 28 at Dudumari Basti near Banarhat in northern West Bengal. Locals claimed the elephant might be pregnant and it was a “deliberate electrocution” to drive the elephant away from the farmlands.
It was the eleventh elephant death reported since the Covid-19 lockdown was announced on March 25 this year. Eight of those elephants have died due to electrocution in northern West Bengal, forest department sources said. At the same time, around four persons lost their lives due to human-elephant conflicts.
These incidents have highlighted the magnitude of human-elephant conflicts in the region. Vinod Kumar Yadav, principal chief conservator of forests and wildlife, West Bengal, said that the elephants died in Buxa Tiger Reserve area after coming into contact with an electric pole.
“Illegal electric hooking is a serious problem in the tea gardens of [the] Dooars and Terai region. I spoke to principle secretary of power department and they will take strict action against it and those deliberately laying electric wires to kill wildlife will face punishments," he said.
Yadav accepted that deliberate electrocution has increased this year.
“In the case of Banarhat, we have already identified the culprit and issued a lookout notice. He will get stringent punishment according to laws,” Yadav said.
Three elephant deaths were reported in the Gajaldoba area in Jalpaiguri. One case was reported inside the cantonment area at Bagdogra in May, and two incidents were reported at Bhutia Basti near Buxa Tiger Reserve, and Madarihat near Jaldapara National Park, on June 16 and June 24, respectively. A 25-year-old elephant was electrocuted at Bamandanga tea garden near Nagrakata and a 15-year old tusker was found dead inside Ramjhora tea garden near Dalgaon on July 21 and July 22, respectively.
“There are several deliberate electrocutions that happened recently at Terai and Dooars region of West Bengal. Similar incidents of electrocution were also reported from Gajaldoba area and it has become a regular practice in the area. Recently forest officials filed FIR against six accused and they were arrested under Wildlife Protection Act,” said Shyama Prasad Pandey of the Society for Protecting Ophiofauna & Animal Rights (SPOAR), a local NGO in Jalpaiguri.
Human habitation, highways, railways strain interaction
A study on spatial patterns of human-elephant conflicts in changing land cover in North Bengal revealed that both the elephant and human population have increased in the past few decades with large tracts of forests converted to commercial tea plantations, army camps and human settlements in Siliguri and adjourning areas. Koustav Choudhury of the Society for Nature & Animal Protection (SNAP), a Siliguri-based NGO, said that illegal encroachment around reserve forests is making the human-elephant conflict worse.
“Several people from Nepal encroached forest lands and settled in small bastis near Naxalbari and Baikunthapur area. Local administration has given pattas to these families in past decades. These were either elephant habitats or part of their traditional corridors,” he added.
The human population increased by 644,989 people between the 2001 and 2011 Census, while the elephant population increased by 201 in the region.
“These communities do not have any understanding on elephant movement," Choudhury said. "Thus, the relationship between elephants and people is gradually getting strained, resulting in causalities on both ends.”
Larger mammals like elephants that require extensive habitats for survival are the most affected ones due to land use change. The newly constructed Asian Highway 2 that connects Panitanki near Siliguri on the India-Nepal border passes through a traditional elephant corridor along Kiran Chandra Tea Garden near Bagdogra. It restricts movements of these long-ranging animals.
The railway track inside Dooars is notorious for elephant deaths ever since the line was converted to broad gauge. Along the 168-km railway track, almost 74km (44% of its length) is through forest that includes three Protected Areas (Mahananda, Chapramari and Jaldapara Wildlife Sanctuaries as well as buffer areas of the Buxa Tiger Reserve). It also passes through 10 important elephant corridors. Apart from this, a large tract of forest has been converted to housing projects, a commercial tea plantation and stone-crushing industry over the past decades.
Transboundary elephant corridor blocked
This Mahananda-Kolabari corridor used to connect the elephant population of Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary to Kolabari Reserve Forest, and finally with the forests of the Jhapa district of Nepal. The movement to Nepal is currently cut off due to electric fencing along the Mechi River. For over a century, elephants have used a route along the banks of the Mechi River that separates India and Nepal.
“Elephants would use the route to travel to Nepal at night and feast on maize fields during the harvest season. In 2016, the Nepal government, with the aid of the World Bank, set up 17.14 kilometers of electric fencing that prevents the elephants from crossing over to Nepal and the traditional route has been blocked for over a hundred elephants in the region,” said Avijan Saha, an elephant conservationist based in Siliguri.
The elephants now go up to the Mechi River and return, which has increased human-elephant conflict on the Indian side.
Upasana Ganguly, Officer In-Charge of the Right of Passage Elephant Corridors Projects at the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI), said that a transboundary conservation approach with neighbouring country Nepal is needed to reduce human-elephant conflict and enhance the connectivity for elephants.
“It is urgent to initiate a dialogue and build an understanding between [these[ two nations because elephants are nomadic and require space and their routes should not be blocked anyway,” she added.
Climate change making it worse
Most seasonal streams across the elephant habitats in the region are drying up due to the creation of dams upstream, agriculture taking place on riverbeds and the installation of rampant shallow pumps for irrigation.
“The water table in Naxalbari and Phanshidewa blocks have abruptly fell in the past few years. Ground water recharge has reduced drastically. As a result, water sources for elephants in Lohagarh landscape went dry during February and March this year,” said Saha.
A recent study published in Diversity and Distributions journal also emphasised that climate change will push elephant ranges towards higher elevations in the Himalayas, directly through temperature and water availability. India and Nepal are home to more than 60% of the total wild Asian elephant population.
The results of the study revealed that by the end of this century, around 41.8% of the 256,518 square kilometres of habitat available at present will be lost due to the combined effects of climate change and human pressure. The projected habitat loss would be “higher in human‐dominated sites at lower elevations due to intensifying droughts, leading elephants to seek refuge at higher elevations along valleys with greater water availability in the Himalayan mountains.” said Choudhury of SNAP, claiming that rising temperatures have also impacted dusting and cooling of elephants in the region.
Conservation plans with coexistence in mind
In a bid to minimise the damages and mitigate the conflict, an Automated Early Warning System (AEWS) has been installed in many forested areas across three districts in northern West Bengal. The project is undertaken by SNAP in collaboration with the forest department.
It is used to alert locals living in villages near forests about the movement of the elephants. The system is mounted with a pole and has infrared technology, temperature and movement sensors along with the controller installed in it. The device can detect the movement of elephants within a 200-metre radius.
"When an elephant comes into the 200-metre radius of the device, it sends an alert to the forest office where a hooter starts buzzing as an indication to the villagers that the elephant is approaching them. As of now we have installed 110 AEWS and those areas observed 40% reduction of conflicts in last year," said Choudhury.
Ganguly of WTI said that deforestation and climate change are the reasons behind rising cases of conflicts.
“Elephant habitats are getting fragmented, which is leading to an escalation in conflict with humans. Most of the elephant corridors in northern West Bengal pass through tea gardens and are under tremendous anthropogenic pressure. Now we need to have a solution of coexistence. As part of our awareness campaigns, we focus on empowering local communities where we build capacity of local villagers, and mobilise them to ensure safe passage for elephants through their corridors, which is for their safety too, and advocating in local as well as regional policy-making level.”
Sharing the same sentiment, Riikjyoti Singha Roy, India Coordinator of Save the Elephant Foundation, said that human-elephant conflicts will never be minimised without involving local communities.
“We believe in peaceful coexistence. Thus, we are working with local communities, involving them to form night guards in villages which inform us about elephant movement so that our quick response team can reach fast to those areas to avoid conflict as well as damages,” he explained.
Tanmoy Bhaduri is an independent journalist. This story was produced as part of the Himalayan Journalists Collective Against Climate Change Fellowship, offered by the Energy and Resources Institute with support from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.
Banner image: Elephants used to cross the Mechi River to move to the forests in Nepal, but now 17.14 km of electric fencing has been set up that prevents the elephants from crossing over to the country. Sources said that recently Nepal government planned to extend this electric fencing / Credit: Tanmoy Bhaduri