New Delhi: At the onset of winter, the paddy fields of south Bengal, a sea of green rice stalks, turn golden with ripening seeds. The rice crop, sowed in waterlogged fields during the monsoon, is ready for harvest.
Traditionally a time for celebration, the harvest season has now turned out to be a nightmare for the farming community in the districts of West Midnapore, Bankura and Purulia. All three districts lie adjacent to the dense forests of neighbouring Jharkhand and Odisha, from where herds of elephants migrate to feast on the nutritious standing crop during this season.
With each passing year, the number of marauding elephants in these rice-growing districts have increased, leaving behind a trail of destruction. Last year, in Bankura alone, the forest department assessed 1,598 hectares of crop damage and 1,677 houses destroyed by elephants. In Midnapore, wild elephants last year damaged over 500 hectares of cropland. Total compensation paid to villagers was Rs1.21 crore.
Numbers tell the state of human-elephant conflict in Bengal: 108 people dead (out of which 71 were in south Bengal) and 14 elephants electrocuted last year. Since April this year, the conflict has left 18 people dead; two elephants have been electrocuted and two shot dead after they were declared rogue by the forest department.
During the day, the elephant herds take shelter in neighbouring forest patches and at night, they come out to raid crops, in a hide-and-seek strategy threatening life and livelihood. Observing the change in this behavioural pattern, S. Kulandaivel, deputy conservator of forests in the urban recreation forestry division and a former divisional forest officer of Bankura north division, says, “Due to depletion of natural food habitat in the forests, elephant herds have extended their habitat to cropland and changed their food habits. The animals now survive on agricultural crops (paddy and wheat) to juicy palatable vegetables and fruit crops like cucurbits, cabbage, cauliflower, potato, brinjal, colacacia, banana, sugar cane and jack fruit, which are commercial cash crops and vital to the local economy.”
It’s alarming the way elephant depredation in south Bengal has turned malignant. Moreover, the human-elephant conflict has escalated into a conflict between the forest department and villagers, as those affected turn their ire on the forest department for its inability to restrict wild elephants to the forest limits. Officials in the conflict-prone areas of south Bengal agree that human-elephant conflict has become a major socio-economic and political issue. Conflict mitigation is increasingly becoming more complex as elephant numbers have increased with the animals expanding their range in south Bengal over the past few years.
Information from the office of principal chief conservator of forests (wildlife) shows that Rs6.08 crore was alloted to compensate animal depredation during 2016-17.
Tracking elephant history in south Bengal
Historical records of south Bengal show that prior to 1900, the area had dense sal forests and was home to elephant herds. But rapid deforestation in the early 20th century changed the forest landscape, depleting the vast sal reservoir. Elephants vanished from this region for several decades—till the 1980s, as per records. The forest department says that elephant herds from Dalma Wildlife Sanctuary in Jharkhand started migrating to south West Bengal from 1987 onwards. Before that, there is only a single record of elephant sighting—in 1976—when a herd of 42 elephants migrated from the Dalma to Sindri in Purulia district. The elephants roamed around for 20 days, destroying paddy crops and killing two people.
However, 1987 onwards, elephant herds started resurfacing in pockets of south Bengal. In the initial years, the number varied from 20 to 50, according to various observers. The elephants would arrive in September and return after winter. At first, the villagers would pay obeisance to the visiting herds, as elephants are deified in Hindu mythology. Kulandaivel makes this interesting observation: “The villagers believed that the crop yield in the areas where elephants were sighted would be much higher than the unvisited fields and villagers were enthusiastic enough not to demand compensation for crop damages. But over the years, the damages to cropland and villages by visiting herds increased, escalating to a menace the villagers are facing today.”
But amid all the destruction, the irony is that the return of these herds to West Midnapore, Bankura and Purulia after decades is an indicator of robust forest growth—the result of an afforestation drive carried out by the forest department and local communities in a joint forest management (JFM) programme.
“Incidentally, the elephants’ migration was aided by the success of forestry projects in West Bengal, under which large patches of degraded forest were turned into regenerated forest. These forest patches provide corridors for movement and convenient shelter to elephants,” writes Nilanjana Das Chatterjee in the book Man-Elephant Conflict: A Case Study from Forests in West Bengal, India (2016).
Subhamay Chanda, chief conservator of forest, special development project, says, “With the afforestation, these areas also witnessed a revival in crop quality providing a suitable habitat for the migratory elephants. A change detection study based on satellite data from 1988 to 1991 for Midnapore, Bankura and Purulia districts confirmed an increase of 315 sq. km in forest cover.” Chanda did a study on human-elephant conflict in south Bengal from 2009 to 2012.
However, the increased green cover—which after all is not a natural forest but plantations—provides shelter to the ever-increasing number of migratory elephants but not food or water to sustain them. The result, therefore, is raiding of crops in the villages in the fringe areas by these elephants. Moreover, a shift in agricultural practices led to modern irrigation projects, facilitating multiple crops providing food throughout the year for these elephants.
“Both JFM and irrigated agriculture provided adequate cover as well as assured food for the migrating elephants whose number increased gradually. This had a direct effect on increase in number and size of migratory herds and their prolonged stay leading to increased man-elephant conflict, greater incidences of crop and property damage and higher rate of injury and human death,” explains Chanda.
“Initially, the herd from the Dalma Sanctuary would come up to Jhargram in West Midnapore, their movement restricted up to the western bank of river Kangsabati. Later, the herds started crossing the Kangsabati and spending most of the time in the eastern part of the river as this area was fertile with food and water in abundance,” adds Chanda. With each passing year, as the migratory herds kept expanding their numbers, they began pushing deeper into south Bengal, even crossing over to Burdwan district.
Emergence of ‘South Bengal Elephants’
The forest department estimates that at present there are about 140-150 elephants in south Bengal. Of this, about one-third return to their home in the Dalma hills in Jharkhand but the majority stay back as there is easy availability of food and water. “In the 1990s, small elephant herds from Dalma visited these southern districts for a very short period of time but now, not only they are four times stronger in number, but are also staying throughout the year in south-west Bengal. Thus, they should be called south Bengal elephants,” says Kulandaivel.
South Bengal is not a natural habitat for elephants and the exponential pachyderm population has made matters worse for villagers and forest officials. In some parts, people have started clearing forest patches out of desperation, so that elephants can’t hide near the villages and farmers have left their land uncultivated to avoid damage by elephants.
“Initially, only the Dalma herd invaded the southern Bengal area, but a forest department report states that another herd which migrated from Odisha through the Mayurjharna Elephant Reserve area have not been able to go back to its original habitat due to the construction of elephant-proof trenches (EPT) along the Odisha-Bengal boundary. This herd is identified by its physical appearance—shorter in stature and a lighter colour compared to the Dalma elephants. Their depredation is more harmful than that of the Dalma herd,” says Chatterjee.
EPTs were built in the past two years to halt interstate movement of elephants at about Rs2 lakh per km. Experts say EPTs might be causing more harm than good as it cuts off traditional migratory routes of the pachyderms.
Chatterjee cites three conflict points owing to movement of elephants: “Damage, or loss of life or property; damage or death of elephant population; and vulnerable situation of forest staff because of assault by the villagers and attack by elephants during the chasing of elephants.”
Over the years, various measures have been adopted to address the issue—using physical barriers, crop guarding and scaring or driving them away by throwing stones or bursting crackers. However, most of these measures were futile.
“Elephants are being driven away from agricultural fields by hullah party, a village task force specially trained by the forest department. A hullah is a 3-4m pole of iron or sal wood the tip of which is wrapped with jute or cloth and soaked with kerosene or diesel. The leader of the group ignites the tip of the hullah and chases the herd till they are driven away from the crop fields. Along with the hullah, they also use firecrackers and fireballs supplied by the forest department. However, crop fields are trampled and damaged by the herd during the chase,” writes Chatterjee.
According to some officials, chasing away elephants by scare tactics causes more damage as the herd splits into smaller groups and run amok in various directions. In the process, they raid multiple fields of crops. The result is an increasing drain on the funds for compensatory payments (towards loss of human life, crops, livestock and properties), but the situation remains unchanged.
Kulandaivel is a strong critic of the hullah method. “You may plan driving operations with hullah parties and hired labourers, but you never know how effective or successful it will be. A section of hullah party, a self-interested group, often disrupts the plan by dispersing elephants into unmanageable smaller groups towards undesired places to keep the elephant herd for longer days. By doing so, they get more wages through the driving operation, which is considered to be much more remunerative than any other labour work.” A hullah worker is paid about Rs284 per day.
Future mitigation plans
“If we look at the conflict scenario in the last year, on an average, two elephants killed one person. The problem is on the rise as there is no natural habitat for elephants in south Bengal. However, the forest division has formed an Elephant Movement Coordination Committee (EMCC) to tackle this menace. The EMCC brings together officials of different districts through WhatsApp groups and email exchanges, updating a herd’s movement. A special human-wildlife conflict mitigation cell has been established which sends out bulk SMS alerts to villagers warning them about a particular herd. This is an early warning system to prevent human casualty,” says Pradeep Vyas, principal chief conservator of forests, wildlife, and chief wildlife warden, West Bengal.
The forest division is also developing a dossier to identify each elephant for official records. There are two separate types of elephants—herds and solitary bulls. These records help officials keep track of their movement and numbers. Moreover, modern training is given to forest staff in tranquilizing, immobilizing and capturing wild animals. Elephant detection warning systems and drones to locate wild herds are in the scheme of things to come.
Compensation payment in case of death and crop damage has also been speeded up. “In the case of deaths, we are giving 80% of the compensation on the spot and in case of crop damage, within two months,” says Vyas.
Since April, 18 human deaths by elephants have been reported.
Pradeep Vyas, principal chief conservator of forests, wildlife, and chief wildlife warden, West Bengal.
Other mitigation measure include raising fodder and bamboo plantation on the route, digging earthen dams and EPTs, alternative crop patterns, electric fencing and launching awareness campaigns in the affected areas for sensitizing people.
S.S. Bisht, former director of Project Elephant, a central scheme aimed at protecting elephants, their habitat and corridors, says, “The root of the elephant problem lies in Jharkhand. Large-scale clearing of forests and mining activities in the state have displaced elephants from their forest home. The Subarnarekha canal, a joint project by Jharkhand, Odisha and West Bengal has cut off old migratory routes. To tackle the problem in south Bengal, there should be separate plans for solitary bull elephants and herds. Herds need to be driven away while bulls need to be captured in a systematic manner over the course of 5-10 years. There is a demand for captive elephants in forestry work in north Bengal where they should be translocated and trained.”
This year, the Bankura division has had some success in restricting herd movements and limiting damage to crops and lives. “The elephant-human conflict cannot be dealt separately state-wise. If we want to conserve this mega-fauna, we have to look at the entire region—the east central landscape and come up with a strategy. A committee has been formed to draw short- and long-term plans,” says R.K. Srivastava, director, Project Elephant.
Until then, in the three districts of south Bengal, elephants continue to move uninhibited, foraging on cropland and setting off flashpoints where they interact with human life.