In the Heart of the Conflict: Understanding the Human Elephant Dynamics in Udalguri
by Nabarun Guha
Ram Kumar Gaur (38) still shudders reminiscing the fateful November morning in 2018. That day, Gaur remembers sitting and chatting on the courtyard outside the thatched hut of his neighbour Kamil Ekka (60) at the edge of 1 no Segunbari village, barely few kilometres from the Indo-Bhutan border.
“It was 7.45 in the morning and before venturing to the field for work, I was chatting with another neighbour, Pradhan Murmu (70) at Ekka’s house. Suddenly, a lone elephant came from the side of the jungle and stormed through the house. While it killed Ekka on the spot, I was hit by its trunk and the impact landed me sideways” Gaur says.
The elephant severely injured Pradhan Murmu who succumbed to his injuries while being taken to the Udalguri Civil Hospital. Gaur’s injury fortunately was nothing major and he was discharged after few days. When asked if he is fearful of elephants now, Gaur says, “I am definitely afraid of elephants. But in Udalguri, you can’t escape elephants. Whether you like it or not, you have to live with them.”
With forest cover in the country is shrinking and humans jostling for space with wild animals, conflict between them is also increasing. As per government data, more people are killed in India by elephants than any other animal. Assam is one of the worst affected states from Human Elephant Conflict (HEC) because of which wildlife NGOs like Aaranyak have even demanded disaster status for the state, with regards to HEC. As per the data provided by Assam government during the Budget Session of the Assam Legislative Assembly last year, 761 people and 249 elephants became victims of HEC in the state from 2010 to 2018.
Photo: Dibakar Nayak
Elephant death at bhooteasang tea garden
Udalguri district, which falls under the Dhansiri forest division, has been the most affected from HEC in Assam. The district which lies in the west of Assam shares border with Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh in the north, Sonitpur district in the east, Darrang district in the south and Baksa district in the west. The district was formed on 2004 by bifurcating Darrang district and is a part of Bodoland Territorial Region (BTR). While Bodos are majority in the district, other prominent demographic groups in Udalguri are Nepalis, Adivasis, Assamese, Bengali Hindus and Bengali Muslims.
As per government data, the loss in Udalguri due to HEC is staggering. From 2010 to 2019, 62 elephants and 155 people have become victims of HEC in the district while during the same period, 4,978 houses and 2,143 hectares of crops were also damaged.
Data on human/elephant death, house damaged/crop damaged by wild elephants under Dhansiri forest division
Source- Dhansiri Forest Division
Locals say that while elephants have always been there in the forests of Udalguri, their conflict with humans is somewhat a recent phenomenon. Wildlife activist Pramesh Rabha (50) says, “During our childhood, we hardly used to see elephants. They stayed in the forests and as they got enough food in the jungles, they seldom ventured out. However, over the years, their habitat has been destroyed which has forced them to raid human settlements.”
Rabha also says that a behavioural change has taken place in the elephants. “They have become more aggressive than before. Earlier, one could get them back to the jungles by just shouting at them. Nowadays, neither fire nor crackers can actually deter them” he says.
Encroachment of forest land
The forest areas under Dhansiri Forest Division fall under Ripu-Khalingduar Elephant Range (ER). It is also a part of Manas Tiger Reserve with Bornadi Wild Life Sanctuary (WLS) being notified as core area and Khalingduar Reserve Forest (RF) being a buffer area of Manas Tiger Reserve. Nanoi range, which falls under this buffer area and is also a part of Chirang-Ripu Elephant Reserve, can be termed as the hotspot of HEC in the district. There are three Proposed Reserve Forests (PRF)s under Nanoi which are yet to be declared as Reserve Forests (RF). Over the years, these forests have been massively encroached, thus getting the elephants out of their traditional habitat. Faunal diversity of these forests is impressive to say the least. Apart from elephants, host of other animals like leopards, wild boars, deers, dholes or wild dogs, gaurs and sometimes even black panthers are found in these jungles.
Conservationist Jayanta Kumar Das, who is also the Honorary Wildlife Warden of Udalguri says, “Khalingduar RF has witnessed rapid deforestation and decimation of wildlife during the 1990s and into the first half of the new millennium. Most of the forest resources were destroyed during the period from 1990 to 2003. The government in power at that time gave a free hand to the Surrendered ULFA (SULFA) militants who destroyed a major chunk of forest and wildlife in Bornadi and Khalingduar. Thousands of hectares of land belonging to those PRFs have already been encroached for tea plantation. Another plot of 2,500 bighas of forest land on the Samrang elephant corridor on the Newly hills has been given to a religious organization for commercial use. This has blocked Samrang elephant corridor which was a source of food and water for the pachyderms, forcing elephants to raid the nearby villages.”
Kalaigaon based journalist and wildlife activist Nabajyoti Baruah also attributed encroachment of forests as one of the primary reason behind HEC in Udalguri. “Earlier there was a long stretch of forest from Paneri upto Bhutan. In 1985, the government started allotting land to landless people and in the process they gave away large chunks of forest land. Then in the 90s, forests in Udalguri were ravaged by timber mafia and SULFA. In those days, traders from Uttar Pradesh used to transport logs from here by loading them on wagons at Tangla railway station. With the diminishing forest, elephants lost their habitat. As a result, we are now seeing them raiding the villages in search of food. In June-July, during monsoon, when there is landslide on the hills, they come down on to the plains and live there till December. During day time, they take shelter in tea gardens and in the evening, they enter the villages looking for food. At that time, people who are looking to guard their crops try to chase them away and in this manner, conflict happens” says Baruah.
As Udalguri started losing its forest cover, grasslands in the district were gradually ravaged by invasive species which made them unsuitable for herbivores. Regarding this, Udalguri based activist Kamal Azad says “Most of the grasslands in the district have been severely invaded by invasive weeds such as Chromolaena adoranta, Lantana camara, Mikania, Mimosa etc. This has created food scarcity for herbivores and wild elephants are also forced to come out of the forest to nearby villages in search of fodder.”
Data on forest land encroached under Dhansiri Forest division
Source- Dhansiri Forest Division
Photos: Rajen Boro
Elephant destroying house at sagolijhar village
Delay in compensation
Manoj Pradhan (42)’s grocery shop is right at the centre of Nonaikhuti Chowk. In the last seven years, his shop has been demolished by elephants four times. “The first attack on my shop happened five years back. Last year, it was broken twice within the span of a month. This year, on the night of Shiv Ratri, they came but spared my shop. Instead, they broke the walls of the rice mill” Pradhan points out to the mill at a stone’s throw away.
He says that he never received compensation for the damage of his shops. “Last time, I had to spend Rs 15,000/- to repair my shop. The goods damaged inside the shop cost Rs 5000/-. It becomes very difficult for a poor man to carry out business like this, especially when you don’t get timely compensation” he says.
Photo: Dibakar Nayak
Elephant demolishes house at Orangajuli tea garden
Hattigor tea estate, which is one of the largest tea garden in the district, is also severely affected by HEC. Ranjit Tanti, headmaster of Bright Star English School, a private LP school in Hattigor whose classrooms were damaged by elephants last year says that people rarely get compensation for house and crop damage and even if they get, the amount is not sufficient.
Tanti says, “In our area, women carry food on cycle for men who work at fields. Few years back, elephants damaged 24 cycles. These people get a wage of Rs 130/- daily. How will they buy a new cycle if they don’t get compensation? Now, they have to walk that distance of 4-5 kms.”
“If the elephant breaks the houses of tea garden workers who live in the labour lines, then the company generally repairs them free of cost. But people who live outside the labour line mostly have to bear that cost themselves” he adds.
Ananta Bagh, a resident of Nonaipara, has been working on mitigating HEC in Udalguri since 2006. He says, “Family of deceased gets compensation fairly quickly. But getting compensation for house/shops/goods/crop is an endless wait. If the compensation is timely, it can solve lot of problems. Many elephants die here from electrocution and poisoning, which are results of retaliatory killings. Timely compensation can stop those incidents.”
M K Sarma, Divisional Forest Officer (DFO), Dhansiri Forest Division admits that there is delay in giving compensation. “Ultimately, we dole out compensation as per the money we receive from the government. This year we have received an amount of Rs 5 lakh to disburse as compensation while the amount we need to disburse is Rs 1.37 crores. So, this creates a backlog and delays the process of disbursing compensation. Earlier, the wait for compensation was even longer. Sometimes, victims didn’t get compensation for as long as seven years” he says.
Local wildlife activist Dibakar Nayak, who is also the Vice President of an NGO called Green Valley Forest & Wildlife Protection Society, says in many cases victims don’t have knowledge on how to apply for compensation. “To get compensation, victims have to take photograph of the damage and then get an acknowledgement certificate from the gaonbura (village head). In case of death, they need to collect the copy of the post mortem report. It is a complicated process and many people hailing from the remote places don’t have much idea about it. If we get news of any damage or casualty from HEC, our boys help them to apply” he says.
There are many incidents of HEC in the region, which have now attained the status of folklore. Small tea grower and youth leader from Tangla, Rajen Boro narrates one such incident when few years back four people were killed by a single elephant on Diwali evening. “Those guys had chased the elephant thus inviting its wrath. One shouldn’t provoke an elephant in any case. Nowadays some folks will come from outside and try to go near the elephant and click photographs on their phones. They are just asking for trouble” he says.
Boro also says that if elephants which kill people are examined, it can be found out that they bear scars from manmade injuries. “People will attack the elephant with musket gun or bow and arrow which doesn’t necessarily kill the animal but will generate a lot of pain. This makes the animal angry and irritated and thus it goes on a rampage, breaking houses and killing people” he says.
Wildlife activist Pramesh Rabha, who is also a school teacher, says that both forest department and local NGOs and activists have been trying to propagate awareness in this regard. “We teach students that elephants should never be provoked or attacked. These animals have terrific memory and they don’t forget anything. If provocation from people stops, then I believe attack from elephants will also lessen by a certain degree” he says.
Photo: Dibakar Nayak
Elephant demolishes house at Segunbari
Living with elephants
During the peak season of HEC, i.e., from July-August to November-December, life becomes a never ending nightmare for the people in these places. Ranjit Tanti says, “Often the elephants break through homes and attack people when they are sleeping. In such cases, some people die of heart attack only.”
However apart from casualties and monetary loss, HEC takes a toll on people in several other ways. Research scholar Sayan Banerjee, who did his thesis on the topic ‘En-gendering Human-Elephant Conflict in Udalguri’ says, “Death/injury, crop/house damage are the easiest measurable indicators of HEC. But, impact of HEC goes much beyond that. There are lots of indirect impacts, which are often long-term, uncompensated, unacknowledged and delegitimized in institutional interventions of HEC mitigation. Due to HEC, mental health is severely deteriorated (sleep deprivation and its affect on everyday work; constant state of fear, anxiety, loss and hopelessness, depression); nutritional loss (due to harvest of unripe paddy; loss of good quality paddy and subsequent dependence upon low quality paddy from market); increased expenditure, mobility is decreased (travel and even tending to nature’s call in the night becomes impossible) and workload is increased (increased crop guarding, increased frequency of collection of firewood and water, travel to greater distances to avoid elephants). Apart from this, I found alcoholism, mostly among men had increased due to HEC. Again, the more vulnerable the individual along the caste-class-ethnic-gender axes, the more difficult it will be for the person to cope with all these things.”
Presently, the forest department in the district which is suffering from a severe man-power crisis is relying on stop-gap arrangements like providing torches and crackers to the villagers to mitigate HEC. Also, anti-depredation squads have been formed to guard the villages against these marauding pachyderms. These squads which usually comprise of ten people have members from both forest department and local people.
Satya Ram Boro, Range Officer, Nanoi Range says, “The area under our range covers almost a 60 km stretch from Tenki Basti to Bhairabkunda. This area is severely affected by HEC. However, we have just 35 staff in the entire range which is certainly not enough. In fact, some of our beats like Swapangaon have just two personnel.”
It is not easy to find solutions to HEC in Udalguri which is plagued by rampant encroachment and lack of manpower in the forest department. From time to time, meetings have been organized in the district by government authorities to suggest measures for mitigation of the man-elephant conflict in the district. Jayanta Kumar Das, who has been part of quite a few of these meetings says, “We give lot of suggestions in these meetings but hardly any are implemented on the ground. Last year, there was a meeting which was also attended by the Deputy Commissioner (DC) and DFO, where we asked tea garden managements of McLeod Russel, Goodricke and Amalgamated TE (TATA) to sponsor one kumki elephant (trained captive elephants used to capture wild elephants) each for the forest department. It is yet to be done.”
Explaining how kumkis can help to mitigate HEC, Das says, “Wild elephants fear kumkis because they know these elephants work for humans. So, when they get the scent of kumkis, they back off because they don’t want to get trapped by humans. Unfortunately, Dhansiri forest division neither has their own kumkis nor they have money to hire one. If kumkis can be hired for five months during peak season every year, the cost will be around Rs 1.5 lakh which can be borne by the tea gardens.”
Das suggests another way in which tea gardens can help. He says, “The tea companies can maintain an artificial forest on a plot of minimum 10 hectares of land with drinking water provision so that migratory herds of wild elephant herds can take shelter there.”
Forest department has undertaken measures like constructing watch towers, opening a control room to assist the public and forming anti-depredation squads. However, these measures work as band-aid solutions and can help in mitigating HEC only to a certain extent.
Summing up the situation, Sayan Banerjee says, “In the largest scale, we have to look into land use land cover dynamics in the region. Since it involves land rights, inter-ethnic tensions and other complex human dimensions, the mitigation will never be easy. Till that time, probably we have to use band-aid solutions to the problem.”
Renowned veterinarian Dr K K Sarma who was recently conferred with Padma Shri sums up the HEC scenario in Udalguri by calling it a vicious cycle. “Many elephants have killed people because they have been attacked or provoked. But then the question arises why they were attacked by people in the first place? People lost their home and crops which made them chase the elephants. So, this is a vicious cycle which is created by the destruction of forests. To ensure the situation doesn’t deteriorate further in Udalguri, we will have to ensure that no more forest land gets encroached” he says.
In this scenario, people of Udalguri need to devise a way to live with elephants. A change will only occur when the youth starts feeling strongly about protecting forests and saving elephants. Ranjit Tanti says he has already started doing the needful in his school. He says, “After all, this is their land as well. They will always remain here. So, we have to learn how to co-exist with elephants. If we can impart this thought in our future generations, maybe we will witness lesser degree of conflict in coming years.”
This story was produced as part of a story grant provided by Aaranyak with financial support from Internews' Earth Journalism Network.
About the Author:
Nabarun Guha is an independent journalist based in Assam and has contributed for publications like The Indian Express and Mongabay-India.