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Revered and Tortured: How May We Help?

by Alolika Sinha

Elephant death due to accidental electrocution

Photo: Udayan Borthakur

In Assam, the people and elephants share their lands and have lived in harmony for ages. The spiritual belief and tolerance of the people have played a major role in enabling this coexistence. Assam has always been a stronghold of Asian elephant population. But with shrinking habitats, changing land-use pattern, urbanization and burgeoning human population, human-elephant confrontations have increased many folds, often leading to undesirable interactions. The negative interactions are in forms of crop & property damages, loss of human lives, retaliatory killings, poaching to name a few. Most of the affected people are often poverty-stricken farmers and villagers. With their lives, and crops at stake, they get infuriated and their reverence towards the elephants gradually cease. This attitude towards the elephants undermine the conservation efforts to safeguard the species.

Cause of worry

If I am to quote the Assam Forest Minister, about 750 people and 250 elephants died unnatural deaths in the state, between 2010 to 2018 as a result of human-elephant conflict. In the year 2019, approximately 75 people and 60 elephant deaths were reported from the state. Of these unnatural elephant deaths occurring over the time period, the most prevalent cause is electrocution. Of late, human-induced elephant deaths using illegal electric fencing powered through mains or high-tension sagging wires is on rise in the state. In the areas with history of crop-raiding and human deaths, villagers have installed illegal electric fences surrounding their crop-fields or habitation. They draw electricity from high-tension wires or domestic lines, illegally for fencing the desired area and when elephants come in contact with these fencing they are electrocuted to death. There are even instances of human deaths when they accidentally bumped into these fences.

Property damage by elephants

Photo: Udayan Borthakur

Aaranyak Steps in

Aaranyak have been studying human-elephant conflict (HEC) across the state. Various site-specific mitigation measures were applied to reduce the incidents of conflict. Some worked and some failed! The challenge with mitigating HEC is one needs to improvise the methods continuously to keep-up with the elephants. The elephants are intelligent beasts and soon adapt to the deterrent measures. The villagers mostly resort to traditional measures of crop-guarding, chasing the elephants and scaring them with fire-crackers, stone pelting etc. The installation of the electric fences is comparatively new in this part of the country and yield high result. Thus, the use of electric fences to ward-off elephants is on rise.

Local youths taking part in installation of solar-powered electric fences

Photo: Aaranyak

In 2014, in a site called Subankhata, on the eastern part of Manas Tiger Reserve, Aaranyak held dialogue and convinced the local communities to convert their illegal electric fences into solar-powered electric fences that are non-fatal. With active participation from the villagers, a 14-km long fence was erected which benefitted about 1000 households as well as approximately 100 odd elephants that inhabit in the area. Six years down the line, the fences are still functional and no incidents of elephant or human deaths have occurred in the area.

In later years, a few more kilometers of such fences were installed with improvised techniques. A total of 24.5 km of solar-powered electric fences were erected at two sites in Baksa districts, and 7.5 km in Nagaon district with support from United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), and Elephant Family India Foundation. In another instance, a solar-powered electric fence was installed in a premise of a primary school in Nagaon district, with the support of Center for Large Landscape, Montana University, USA.

Benefitting People

With this effort, about 10,000 households, and their crop-fields are benefitted. The fences are erected in such a manner that encompasses the villages, without hampering the passage of the elephants, thus fostering coexistence between both the species.

The mechanism of the fences is simple; when dusk sets in the power is put on. The elephants coming in contact with the wires, get a mild shock, which deters them to raid crop fields or destroy properties. Besides reducing people’s economic losses, this set up also have a significant effect on their social life. During the crop season, most men of the villages were out guarding the crops from wild elephant’s herds. The prolonged deprivation of sleep, often had negative impact on health and social life. Solar-powered electric fences secured the villagers’ crops and houses. They could now spend peaceful nights. This, in turn, reduced the hostility towards the elephants and facilitated human-elephant coexistence.

The key to the success of the solar-powered fences was the involvement and capacity building of local communities. Villagers took an active part in installing each fence — they provided materials such as wooden / bamboo poles, devoted time to constructing the fence and took responsibilities of maintenance. Aaranyak pitched in with technical know-how, equipment and capacity building. In the future, we plan to reach out to more such affected areas and help them resolve HEC.

Nonetheless, Aaranyak is ‘buying time’ by installing solar-powered fences. At the same time, we are working tirelessly for long-term solutions to resolve HEC by securing and restoring elephant habitats and corridors. Aaranyak also strongly advocates and urges competent authorities to consider HEC as a ‘disaster’, as the lives claimed by it have surpassed death tolls due to natural disasters like floods in Assam. The ‘disaster’ status will ensure more fund flow and better mitigation. The model has worked well in Uttar Pradesh. In recent times, to mitigate HEC, the government of Assam has launched anti-depredation squads of the forest department, who are well-trained and better equipped to deal with HEC. We hope that with proactive and pragmatic approaches, we can minimise HEC in the state and usher coexistence.

*Article republished from Down to Earth publication dated 12th June 2020

About the Author:

Alolika Sinha is a wildlife biologist working with Aaranyak. Her research interest lies in herbivore-habitat interaction and community conservation.

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