NUMALIGARH: In a heart-wrenching incident on July 27 this year, a tea worker near Morongi Tea Estate in Numaligarh was crushed to death after a herd of elephants was teased by a crowd. The incident video got widely circulated and people expressed pain, shock and grief, nothing has changed since then.
Nearly a thousand people and over 250 elephants have lost their lives in Assam since 2010, and the conflict keeps escalating. Though the scenes of unruly crowds and trumpeting elephants create a melodrama, many behavioural and socio-economic issues are playing behind the scene. Not all faceoffs of humans and wild elephants are retaliatory and disturbing.
Former wildlife warden of Golaghat, Arup Ballav Goswami, wildlife biologists Dr Rajeev Basumatary and Dr Mayur Bawri and wildlife activist Rituraj Phukon helped The Corbett Foundation to track down the path that elephants take while moving from the Nambor-Doigrung Wildlife Sanctuary to the paddy fields. The three have been following the movement pattern of elephants for nearly two decades. The Corbett Foundation (TCF) has been involved in human-elephant conflict mitigation in Kaziranga for seven years and has tried various ways jointly with the local community. TCF's modified lookout point (tongi) project for conflict mitigation in Kaziranga, in collaboration with the International Elephant Foundation, the USA, has yielded positive results in reducing the losses and building trust. The TCF team, helped by the local youths of Golaghat under the guidance of Goswami, visited the area to understand if a similar approach or a modification of the same could help the local people and the elephants. The beginning was made by identifying the vulnerable points in the route of elephants where a herd of elephants and human beings may accidentally face each other due to darkness. Fifteen households located at the periphery of the routes that lead to the paddy fields through No1 Doigrung village and tea garden were equipped with a powerful torchlight by TCF so that people could see the elephants approaching even at night and give safe passage to them. It will help the residents of the area to continue living in co-existence with elephants through positive reinforcement. The following local step could be installing solar streetlights at sensitive junctions to allow human beings to stay back when elephants are crossing. Currently, the villages lack streetlights. As a result, there is panic and confusion on when the elephants will cross.
TCF's Deputy Director and Veterinary Advisor, Dr Naveen Pandey, said that not all elephants ransack home and not all people chase elephants. "A lot has to do with the behaviour of human beings, their awareness level and both of them are shaped by their vulnerability and insecurity to livelihoods," said Dr Pandey. He pointed at some of the very fragile houses flanking the narrow path taken by a herd of over 70 elephants of varying age that the elephants could have knocked down with ease.
Within the same area, some villages showed a greater level of tolerance as their property was not damaged. In contrast, others chased the elephants, fearing a loss of life and property. "The elephants, upon leaving the forest cover, aim to reach the paddy fields and would avoid a confrontation with the settlements of tea garden workers between the forest cover and the fragrant crop in rice fields. The elephants would certainly not like to engage in a confrontation as it carries a cost. Noise, the smell of brewing alcohol and frequent alterations or barriers in the path can confuse the elephants, and they may be prompted to take the challenge of confrontation with human beings", argued Dr Pandey. It could probably explain the varying degrees of conflict manifestation in Doigrung, Letekujan, Madhabpur and Sundarpur tea estates.
The corridors that elephants take stand fragmented and choked. What we witness in the tea gardens of Golaghat is a result of many decades of unsustainable development that has left the elephants the most vulnerable due to their size and dietary needs. The solution can not be sought locally when the primary causes rest somewhere else. The conflict mitigation tools could be a way of striking a balance between the humans and elephants for co-existence at the local level until a larger plan to secure the habitat and corridors is put in place. At the national level, Environment Minister Bhupender Yadav recently declared a project to verify the existing corridors, identify new corridors used by elephants, and recommend GIS technology for land use and land mapping. Ministry of Forest, Environment and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) has wittingly written to the Principal Chief Conservator of Forest of 17 project elephant states to avoid using harsh words for the ongoing conflict as it sends a signal of panic and apathy. Hopefully, the situation at the ground zero level will improve when habitat and corridors are secured. At the moment, the situation looks grim and beyond control.