Sipping tea at his residence, 60-year-old Boloram Nayak, who has endured over a decade of regular elephant intrusions into his village, is angry about the lack of concerted efforts to address the human-wildlife conflict.
“We have to struggle to survive with the elephant herds destroying crop fields, granaries and even households,” he said.
This is elephant country, where people and elephants have coexisted for eternity. But in the past two decades, it has become a hotspot of conflict with human-elephant clashes rising 100 percent since the 1990s. It coincides with the start of illegal logging in this region and the invasion of timber dealers, including some surrendered former militants and their henchmen.
Despite the blanket ban on logging ordered by the Supreme Court of India in December 1996, illegal logging continued unabated. The felling of large trees was followed by encroachment and clearance of forest areas for human settlement, agriculture, plantations and mining. By the turn of the century, most of the Karbi foothills habitat was fragmented with traditional elephant tracks encroached and degraded.
A recent landmark study found that Asian elephants may lose up to 42 percent of suitable habitats in India and Nepal to climate change and unsustainable land use by the end of this century. 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,” the study said.
The Karbi foothills are an example of the changing forest habitat, and vast grasslands have been overrun by invasive shrubs and creepers. Villagers maintain that a lack of food is driving elephant herds into conflict with humans. The area is contiguous to the Kaziranga-Karbi-Anglong Elephant Reserve, which is home to an estimated 1,675 elephants, as per the elephant census of 2011. These numbers may change marginally, depending on the availability of area-specific data from the Project Elephant Division at the Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change (MoEFCC). A previous report by them, the Synchronized elephant population estimation India 2017 placed Assam, with 5,719 wild elephants, below Karnataka in its list of top Indian states with the largest population of wild elephants.
In terms of conflicts and casualties, Assam ranks first among all Indian states. In July 2019, Babul Supriyo, India’s Minister of State at the MoEFCC, stated in the parliament that the maximum number of elephant and human life losses were recorded in Assam.
The minister stated that 332 human lives were lost across Assam due to the straying of elephants into human habitats between 2014 and 2019, while 128 elephants died in the state during the same period.
“Due to habitat fragmentation, elephants are moving out to agricultural landscapes, leading to an increase in man-elephant conflict,” said R.K. Srivastava, Director of Project Elephant, in reference to the same report, on World Elephant Day 2017. Elephant herds regularly enter human settlements in the Karbi foothills and elephant depredation is widely prevalent.
Special Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, Karbi Anglong, Dr. Abhijit Rabha, IFS, is in charge of efforts to monitor the movement of elephant herds and causes of conflict.
“The increasing instances of human and elephant casualties in the Karbi foothills has made it one of the major Human-Elephant-Conflict (HEC) affected zones in the world,” he said.
A habitat under invasion
“An elephant has been killed,” said Binod ‘Dulu’ Bora of Green Guard Nature Organization (GGNO), a Nagaon-based NGO.
It was a blazing hot day in the middle of May, and we had just stepped out of the vehicle at the Chapanala Bazaar, a township famous for the historic Champawati Kunda waterfalls, when we heard the news about the latest casualty.
“This is the first incident of elephant killing this year. I was told it is a case of poisoning, but I have my doubts. At least nine elephants have been killed in these parts in the past three years or so and most of them have been electrocuted,” Dulu said.
At the Chapanala Beat Office, strategically located within the human-elephant conflict zone, records show only one elephant death due to "unnatural causes."
Elephant herds come down from the Karbi Anglong hills near Dhulpahar, about 6 km to the east of Chapanala, cross the winding roads and laze in the tea gardens that have proliferated on ancient wildlife corridors.
“This is where we used to come to see elephants in our childhood. But now the entire habitat is under attack.” Dulu pointed across the hilly landscape as we made our way through the tea garden.
There has been a massive plantation of tea gardens in the past two decades. Without the clear demarcation of jurisdiction between the two districts of Nagaon and Karbi Anglong, there are no records about the number of such plantations encroaching on forest land. In most places, the settlement of plantation labourers at the edge of the forest has led to further encroachment and extension of agricultural farms.
“There are contiguous forested hills where boundaries are not clearly defined and villages may overlap the two districts,” said Dr. Abhijit Rabha, when asked about the territorial overlay between the Nagaon and Karbi Anglong districts.
Manohar Singh has lived in Dhulpahar all his life and is used to seeing elephants walk by from his backyard.
“I feel sad for the elephants. I am a victim myself, with elephants devouring my ripe paddy three times. But what we are doing here is destroying their forest habitat. Where will they go? These stone quarries have aggravated conflict. They have suddenly sprouted all over the hills and there is a constant blasting of rocks.”
The Supreme Court of India ordered a complete ban on mining activities along the southern boundary of the Kaziranga National Park in April 2019, prompting the relocation of these quarries to Dhulpahar, which is outside the ambit of the ban order. At least 50 such quarries are now operating illegally in the foothills close to the Swang R.F.
Assamese environmental activist Rohit Choudhury had filed a writ petition seeking recourse to the rampant illegal mining and stone crushing activities in the foothills of Karbi Anglong hills last year, following which a Central Empowered Committee (CEC) conducted several onsite inspections and hearings with all stakeholders in the state of Assam. Among other things, the CEC noted in a 2019 report that “the foothills of the Karbi Anglong Hills with lush growth of bamboo are an ideal habitat for wildlife and form part of the Kaziranga-Karbi-Anglong Elephant Reserve.”
He says he is happy with the progress of implementation. “The Supreme Court's mining ban order has been a win for the wildlife of Kaziranga National Park, as the stone quarries are closed,” he said. “Now, as no disturbance is made after the suspension of mining operations and movement of the dumpers, Kaziranga’s wildlife has been reclaiming the area which was initially their natural habitat.”
But the court order has shifted the problem, rather than eliminating it. Quarrying continues in the Kaziranga-Karbi-Anglong Elephant Reserve, and areas further to the west are being exploited, further degrading the landscape.
From reverence to nuisance
At Dhulpahar, the poignant crowd had carefully placed flowers around the head of their fallen god, an adult male. Some people were remonstrating with the forest staff about the lack of security for both humans and elephants. The situation was tense.
An experienced hand in these matters, Dulu found burn marks on the underside of the trunk and traced the wires and other materials to a nearby household. Less than an hour after our arrival, one person was detained for killing the elephant by electrocution. Forester Grade 1 at the Salonah Range Office, Pranab Borah, who arrested the accused, said, “We will provide the evidence to the honourable Court. The law will take its course.”
Elephants were once revered, and villagers paid obeisance to the passing herds. Pieces of bones from dead elephants were placed for worship in the courtyard to ward off evil spirits. Large bones used to be buried in the premises of households in the village of Loongsoong, where the women would light an earthen lamp every evening. In the past two decades, the majority of families have embraced a new religion and are reluctant to talk about the past, when the worship of elephant bone relics was commonplace.
The tradition of ganeshbhog or hastipuja, a ritual offering of some harvested paddy for appeasement of passing herds was widespread. Uttam K. Sangma, a resident of Kothalguri village, is among those who have tried to revive the practice to strengthen the age-old bonds between humans and beast. He explained the practice to us, saying: “We believe that elephant herds do not enter the crop fields of the farmers performing ganeshbhog, so that he can enjoy his full harvest.”
“Although there is no study to prove or disprove such beliefs, these are part of the traditional knowledge systems in some communities. If these practices facilitate human-elephant coexistence, as some people believe, and mitigate conflict, then so be it,” Dr. Abhijit Rabha responded when asked about the practice of ganeshbhog.
Potholed roads, dilapidated houses, sporadic power supply and a lack of basic healthcare and sanitation is glaringly evident. The Karbi foothills have not seen much development and the standards of living are abysmally low. The constant struggle for survival strains human-elephant relations in many of areas contiguous to the Karbi foothills.
“Elephants are now present here throughout the year. They come for jackfruits, they come for salt and sometimes break into the shops,” said Suresh Deuri, 56, a resident of Loongsoong.
At least 32 human deaths and 139 injuries by elephant were documented by GGNO in the Karbi foothills area between 2005 and 2017, besides at least 25 elephant deaths. The Assam-based NGO has been working with these fringe forest communities to develop locally sustainable solutions to facilitate human-elephant coexistence since 2004. They have also documented the damage of 803 households and 6,037 bighas of crop fields during the period.
In March 2017, new guidelines for the enhancement of ex-gratia compensation for loss of human life and injuries and damage to crops and properties by wild animals were published by the Environment and Forest Department, Government of Assam. These revised rates provided for payment of Rs. 4 lakhs (US$5,570) for death, up to Rs. 2 lakhs (US$2,785) for permanent disability, including loss of a limb or an eye and up to Rs. 30000 (US$415) for treatment of injuries.
For material damage, the guidelines provided for payment of up to Rs. 2000 (US$27) for loss of clothing, utensils and other household goods, Rs. 3750 (US$52) per cattle for loss or damage of livestock, a maximum of Rs. 7500 (US$104) per family for crop loss, up to Rs. 10000 (US$139) for damage of thatched houses and a maximum of Rs. 95000 (US$1,322) for damage of reinforced concrete houses.
Despite these guidelines, complaints of inadequate compensation and inordinate delays are widespread.
“We are poor villagers and most of us are unable to read or fill up forms to claim compensation. Now the situation has improved but who decides how much is enough? When we lose the paddy, we lose everything,” said Anand Gowala, a local student leader of the Adivasi community, who has been aiding in the compensation for crop loss.
“Compensation is paid according to procedure whenever there is a claim. Many villagers are reluctant to come to the office and we have to go to them to get them to claim compensation. The application has to be processed and many of them do not follow up. That is why sometimes compensation has not been paid,” said Forest Officer Pranab Borah, who has served in the area for many years.
There is a lack of clarity in the forest department records about the compensation paid to victims of elephant depredation. The Chapanala Forest Beat Office records only one human death in the past five years while quick research of past media reveals at least five deaths. The records for property and crop damage are sketchy and do not reflect the actual extent of loss due to elephant depredation.
“The digitalization of records has not taken place and there is no clarity on compensation claims and settlements. It is likely that loose papers containing vital information might be lost from the worn-out files and folders,” said Jyoti Bikash Baishya, a research scholar from the Department of Ecology & Environmental Science at Assam University, Silchar.
The understaffed office lacks even basic facilities, with no scope for digitalization of records. The Beat Officer and two ranks spent most of their time in the field, attending to elephant intrusion incidents or other wildlife rescues. There was no satisfactory answer to the discrepancy between official and non-governmental records, or even media reports, which match the casualties listed by civil society groups.
Dulu, who is also the Project Lead of Human Elephant Conflict Management, a project led by the UK-based organization Elephant Family says, “People here are very poor and illiterate. They find the process of compensation claims lengthy and cumbersome.”
Food for thought
We reached Bagherghati, where villagers have been planting banana and other fodder trees since 2013. A housewife, Hanaki Tirki lives in constant fear of offending the “elephant gods” and believes that they are forced to come down from the hills due to hunger.
“There is no grass in the hills. What will they eat?” she asks.
This was a common statement made by villagers living in the conflict zone. Raju Borah, 48, grew up close to the Swang Reserve Forest and often ventures up to the forest. “Elephants passing by these parts have nothing to eat. All the grasslands have disappeared.”
“The biggest threats to the megaherbivores of the area are increasing landscape modification, degradation of elephant ranges by humans and biological invasion. The foothills are covered by invasive and alien plant species such as Lantana camera and Chromolaena odorata in different forest landscapes of the study area. This has led to a decline in the growth of native food plants and the grassland habitats of elephants, and increased the levels of HEC,” said Jyoti Bikash, whose ongoing Phd research is on human-elephant conflict in the Swang Reserve Forest, Nagaon, Assam and its adjoining areas.
The degradation of elephant habitats has been worsened by changes in land-use patterns and conversion of forest lands.
“The Karbi foothills have seen the continued expansion of human settlements, agriculture practices and plantations. Encroachment of forest areas has fragmented and degraded habitats in much of the Karbi foothills and hindered the propensity of wild animals to move around the terrain,” said Special PCCF Dr. Abhijit Rabha.
“Although there has been appreciable sensitization of the inhabitants for mitigation of HEC thanks to the combined efforts of the forest department and civil society, the increased exploitation of forest resources including mining and invasive vegetation growth and rising temperatures pose greater challenges for the future,” said Jyoti Bikash, whose research is the first such attempt in the Karbi foothills.
Living with elephants is a constant challenge for those living on the fringes of the forests.
“Encroachment on traditional elephant corridors is evident; so many plantations have come on forest lands,” social activist Rupali Nayak says.
Ironically, the men and women of her village ‘Hospital Line’ work as labourers in a tea garden. Having lived in constant fear of elephant encounters, all they want now is peaceful coexistence. It looks increasingly difficult as anthropogenic pressures continue to bleed the Karbi foothills landscape.
Note: Some names have been changed upon request.
Banner image: Dulu (in the black t-shirt) investigates the cause of death of this elephant while villagers pay their last respects in May 2019. Initially passed off as a case of poisoning, it was later established that the elephant died of electrocution / Credit: Uttam K. Sangma