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Articulating human, elephant relationship

The death of two elephants in Assam’s Karbi Anglong district due to suspected poisoning is an ominous sign of human-elephant conflict approaching a flashpoint in the state.


Sentinel Digital Desk

The death of two elephants in Assam's Karbi Anglong district due to suspected poisoning is an ominous sign of human-elephant conflict approaching a flashpoint in the state. Rising incidents of death and injuries of people, destruction of standing crops and dwelling houses in elephant depredation speak volumes about the ineffectiveness of the mitigation measures. The elephant population in the state face extinction threat if an effective strategy to reduce the conflict continues to elude Assam. Chasing elephant herds from human habitations back into forests is no solution at all and the problem has aggravated with the increase in the number of human-elephant conflict zones in the state. The primary reason behind the conflict is the fragmentation of elephant corridors due to development activities such as laying of a railway line, construction of roads, clearing of forests for infrastructure projects and illegal felling of trees by timber smugglers. The death of two elephants after being hit by the Rajdhani Express near Jagiroad last month is a glaring example of the development activities-induced human-elephant conflict resulting in the tragic death of elephants during the movements along their natural corridors which are fragmented. Recurrence of such incidents also points towards the system of coordination between the Northeast Frontier Railways and the state Environment and Forest department not working and calls for a joint review to identify the gaps and fix accountabilities. For the affected villagers, the visible solution adopted by the Forest department is creating barriers for the crop-raiding elephant herds by installing a hanging electric fence, solar-powered fence but not all areas of conflict have these fences. People setting up illegal electric fences drawing power from high tension wire have resulted in the death of many elephants in some areas. Solar-powered fences, when erected without blocking the passage of elephants is effective in some areas. Besides, the experiment of bio fences of bamboo or lemon trees in some areas has also been found to be working as a short-term solution. The primary objective of these fences is to restrict elephants in their traditional habitats. The problem, however, arises when humans continue to encroach further into elephant habitats beyond these fences forcing elephant herds to explore alternative routes to come out in search of food. The deficiencies in this deterrent measure have also been pointed out in the 'Guideline for Management of Elephant Conflicts' circulated by the Ministry of Environment & Forest to the states. "Barriers achieve only partial success at best. Elephants often find their way around barriers, over or through barriers and gain entry into the desired area," states the guidelines which underscore the need for a long-term solution of conserving the elephant corridors. While the shortage of food is one key reason, the availability of crops is often an incentive for the elephant herds in some areas even when there is no shortage of natural fodder, to raid the paddy fields. The long-term strategy of conserving the elephant habitat, providing it with a free passage along their natural corridors to prevent the conflict has not got the attention it required. Often, the villagers are unable to demarcate the human-use areas from the elephant habitats because of the land-use pattern that has taken shape over several decades and perceive the elephants' movement in these areas as an intrusion. Payment of compensation to the affected population for the loss of standing crops, loss of lives, or injuries caused due to elephant depredation plays a critical role in mitigating the conflict. Raising the compensation amount will ensure the active cooperation of the villagers to the Forest & Environment Department for better management of the conflict zones and for undertaking measures aimed at conserving the elephant habitats and corridors. Alternative livelihoods and adequate package can motivate the people to relocate to new areas if such conservation, restoration of the ecosystem to restrict the elephants from straying out, requires relocation of an entire village falling in the elephant corridor. The conflict-mitigation strategy often finds the wildlife activists and Forest department standing on one extreme and the affected villagers on the other due to the failure of the stakeholders to fine balance environmental protection and development needs of a human being.

An effective strategy to mitigate the conflict must be pivotal to both the conflict parties -- elephant as well as human. Blaming the human population for encroaching into human habitat has not helped to end the conflict. Along with building awareness on nature conservation, assuring livelihood protection and adequate compensation for losses must be the focal point of a permanent solution to the problem. The conflict cannot be left to be a task handled by the Forest Department alone. The other departments prioritising the aspects of human-elephant conflict while drawing up schemes and projects in the affected areas will go a long way in making more support available for the residents of those villages. It is high time the human-elephant conflict-mitigation strategy is rearticulated from the perspective of the human-elephant relationship, not conflict.

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