Battle zone: Humans vs elephants

  • 30/03/2003

Battle zone: Humans vs elephants War zones
Where battles rage in the evening

By the time they killed it on June 25, 2002 the female elephant had killed 13 people over three days across the Indo-Nepal border. This much is known. The rest is a mix of half-truths, rumours, absurdities and hysteria.

The female came from a herd of about 40 elephants resident in the Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuaryin northern West Bengal (wb). Each year in May-June the herd moves west through the Kurseong forest division crossing over the seasonal river Mechi into Nepal (see map). The disjointed mixed sal forests are dotted with villages and tea gardens; with a population density higher than 500 per sq km. In the winter crop season the elephant herd is a blight for the residents.

The herd was on its seasonal trampling and crop-raiding mission on June 23, 2002. By midday the forest department radios were crackling, with anxious rangers and beat officers leaving frantic and confused messages. News spread fast. An elephant had killed seven people in Tukrabusti and Marapurbusti villages in Panighatta range, two predominantly Santhal villages adjoining tea gardens. The people were shaken. This was a violation of protocol - elephants, it was well known and believed throughout the country, raided villages only at night. The deaths were usually at the hands (or feet!) of solitary bulls, not elephants that moved in a herd. Many were accidents. Since 1997, 28 people had been killed in the small fragmented patch of forest called the Kurseong division, and people are used to the periodic trauma.

But the 2002 incident shook them. They prepared to stay on vigil through the night, keeping their torches, crackers and drums handy. That night, there were no other incidents on the Indian side. The "killer" crossed the international border midnight of June 24. It killed three people in Bahundangi village of Jhapa. Before daybreak, it returned to Indian territory and killed two people in Chegabusti.

As dawn broke, the news spread. Authorities managed more angry complainants than they could handle. People approached local politicians, who called up "their people" in Kolkata. Calls from Kolkata began to pour into administrative offices of Darjeeling and Jalpaiguri. Within hours the entire region was awake to the incident. The media sniffed a story.

The killings were classified as "sensational", the elephant "murderous", and the region as "terror-struck". Hysteria took over.

The forest department intensified the search for the killer elephant. The divisional forest officer, Raju Das, took the decision to shoot it down without waiting for the mandatory written permission from the chief wildlife warden of West Bengal. A retired army officer, A Chauhan, was asked to accompany the search party with his much-talked-of magnum gun. He was about to become a new age Jim Corbett. On the morning of June 25, the rogue was to kill its last victim in Bamanpokhri forest village. It was then tracked down inside the forest, identified (or guessed to be the same one) and shot. Some reports say just once with the magnum, between his eyes and some say repeatedly, till it slumped to the ground in a heap. The rogue died. People had little time to sigh in relief; the harvest season was not over yet.

Beast of many parts
This is one example of the mythology of elephants in India. A handful of theories still do the rounds about why the elephant went berserk. Was this an aberration? At a ripe old age of 80, Debashish Chaudhri, resident of a village on the periphery of the Mahananda sanctuary, provides a perspective: "Crop raids, broken houses and crashed walls have been routine. But this single animal mocked at all social constructs. For some time, people will justify it as an aberration."

It is easy to offer the "one mad elephant" logic. It is quite another task for a villager to explain why the 300-500 elephants of northern wb walk around the entire region, raiding fields and eating the crop at will. What drives them out of the forests? Why do they prefer standing crops?

Further east, in the adjoining state of Assam, the situation is worse. Despair has turned people violent. In 2001, 17 elephants were poisoned to death in Sonitpur district of Assam within a span of 70 days. There was no reason to suspect poachers - the tusks weren"t removed. It was exasperated villagers. On the body of one elephant were painted the words: Thaan chor, Laden (which translates to "paddy thief, Osama bin Laden").

This wasn"t the first case of its kind to be "recorded"; certainly not the last. The next year saw three cases of poisoning. In 2001-2002, 17 elephants died due to "unknown" causes. It is a rising trend. The increasing number of people getting killed by elephants isn"t unrelated (see graph: When people die, so do elephants). Elephants killed 50 people in the state in 2001. It wasn"t a coincidence that 26 of these were trampled in Sonitpur district itself.

Long distance traveller
Why were these people killed? Because the elephants came to raid crops. They entered villages and labour lines in tea gardens - allured by the smell of liquor, searching for rice and stored paddy - trampled upon the odd person who happened to cross their path, or tried to shoo them away with crackers distributed by the forest department. Perhaps one casualty was also the drunk santhal in the tea garden labour line, who either decided to challenge the Ganesh baba to a fist fight or bowed down to touch the feet of the god incarnate that had blessed him with a divine sighting on an unlit, unpaved street in the dead of the night. Hundreds of kilometres away the context may change, but the tragedy repeats itself every year.

In Kerala"s Wayanad district, the pulse beat of the energised fences keep life going in Nulpuzha village. There are five settlements in the village situated right inside the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary. In a four sq km area of Vellakkode and Manimunda, elephants have caused the death of eight people in the last six years, including three in the family of Pazhani.

Out of the 89 settlements within the sanctuary, 225 families live in this village within the elephant reserve, cultivating paddy, pepper, banana and jackfruit. Many have sent away their children to stay in far-away hostels. But 100-odd school-going children cross the elephant empire twice a day.

The empire of the elephant is quite large - its home range. Raman Sukumar of the Asian Elephant Research Centre (aerc) in Bangalore, explains, "Elephants are known to migrate over long distances, as much as 500 sq km annually, as in the case of northern West Bengal, or as little as a 100-200 sq km, as is the case in parts of Sri Lanka. One can almost predict their route and general location in a given season." The herds are matriarchal and follow these routes in an annual ritual, moving from one forest area to another. The basic unit of the elephant society is the family, consisting of an adult female and her offspring, including daughters of all ages and sons of pre-pubertal age. A joint family is composed of two or more adult cows, presumably sisters, or mother and daughters and their offspings. A family or joint family forms temporary groups with more families - known as a kin group. During certain seasons a large number of elephant families group together. The males on the other hand disperse from the family around pubertal age, move solitary or form temporary bull groups. They associate with family groups during mating.

Migration is a necessity. An elephant"s daily need for green fodder is more than 250-350 kg. It is selective in what it eats. Studies from the elephant habitat in southern India show that though it can eat more than 100 species of plants, the most commonly eaten plants are restricted to a handful. A study by Sukumar in three forest divisions of the southern states showed that just 25 species from three specific taxa accounted for about 85 per cent of the diet. The results can vary with the type of forests under study but the patterns of selective eating habits hold true. In the sub-tropical forests of the Northeast, there is a greater variety to chew upon.

The elephant browses as well as grazes. Studies have shown that the elephant"s 50-100 per cent food needs are met by browsing. Obviously, the results vary with terrain. In a dominant grassland ecology, grazing could become the predominant activity.

Fractured homelands
Given the forest cover of India, there is very little space for its 28, 000-odd elephants. And their population only increases with time. But there does persist an argument whether improved census techniques aid the increase in numbers (see box: The number game). Just about 23 per cent of the elephant habitat constitutes protected areas. The remaining? Some reserved forests, some community forests. But a large chunk of it is revenue land - villages, fields, fallows, even cities. These are crisscrossed by roads, rail tracks, army cantonments, institutional buildings, panchayat lands, illegal hutments and "legal" structures, temples, schools, water tanks, ponds, canals, electric cables and telephone wires. You name it and the elephant walks across it. For the elephant, it is its home. And it is "fragmented" (a term used commonly by wildlife biologists). Over years, forests have become patchy.

How dramatic is fragmentation? It varies. From a kutcha road, a village intersecting the traditional path of the elephant, to the colonial legacy of a tea garden coming up in an erstwhile forest. What is a fragment today will be lost completely tomorrow. The State of Forest Report 2003 (yet to be released) shows Assam has lost 392 sq km of dense forest over the past two years. Assam is one extreme case. But forests across the country face some degree of fragmentation. This increases the likelihood of elephants coming in contact with human habitation; the number of cases of conflict will then increase.

Anirban Roy Dutta of the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun, is researching the elephant raids on crops in northern West Bengal. "Walk the length of the road from Bagdogra, Siliguri, towards the Nepal border and you shall see forest patches sandwiched in between tea gardens with their attendant labour lines. Historically these areas are recorded as elephant habitat." Elephants can convey the herd"s memory of the routes down generations. The elephants are forced to walk through human habitation. The results are devastating.

The volume of crop loss is remarkable. Karnataka is one of the few states to maintain records of crop damage. It has compensated farmers to the tune of Rs 2.42 crore between 1997 and 2001. West Bengal paid Rs 71.63 lakh for crop damage and human casualties in 1999-2000. Assam does not maintain similar records. In many parts of the country, the harvest of the winter crop is not the time to celebrate but to prepare for a long battle. Tentuli village of Orissa"s Keonjhar district shifts to the safety of tree houses. They then guard their dear ones from the wrath of elephants with drums and fire till the break of dawn. Normal life of villagers in nine blocks of the district remains paralysed during the harvest. In Debabandha village of Keonjhar, Dibakar Juang has found a new job at the age of 75 - tracking elephant movements. If he feels assured that elephants are at least 30 km away from the village he sleeps alongside his grandchildren. Else he keeps vigil, for the sake of his life and the paddy crop.

Diet problems
Two theories abound as to why the elephants so often come to the fields to eat. One theory, backed by field studies carried in the southern ranges, propounds that it is optimal feeding strategy that leads the elephants to take the high risk of entering fields. Raman Sukumar, who is at the forefront of the arguments favouring this theory, explains. "In the larger intact habitats, it is the male that is more prone to raiding crops. The females, as long as their main areas are intact, are not a problem. But as you fragment the habitat the frequencies of raiding by the elephants also start to increase." In highly fragmented habitats, the females also begin to raid while passing from one patch to another and the frequency of raiding by females in herds can go as high as that by bulls.

His theory - called amongst the scientists as the high risk, high yield theory - propounds that the males, in order to increase their reproductive chances, are prepared to take higher risks and therefore become habitual crop raiders. Sukumar"s research shows that in per capita terms it is the males in the populations that cause greater damage. He mentions research conducted in Sri Lanka that shows that 85 per cent of the crop raiding was carried out by males even though the males only constitute 15 per cent of the population.

But another group of scientists believe that it is forest degradation that causes the crop depredation and not any optimum foraging tactic. Ajay Desai, one of the scientists involved with this aspect of elephant studies, says. "Crop raiding is a result of habitat loss, fragmentation and degradation - all processes that result in depletion of resources for elephants. Local over abundance (population growth in good areas) can also put pressure on elephants as there are too many elephants and this can result in some elephants starting to raid." He contends that usually female elephants that have not lost a significant part of their home range will not raid crops when there is crop protection. Bulls may however end up close to fields and may be more committed crop raiders; they are single and large and do not have to worry about safety being of calves like females. Even here it must be remembered that not all males raid crops - only some do.

Desai"s research, conducted along with other colleagues contends, that though males may be responsible for greater per capita damage, herds are responsible for greater total damage. S S Bist, director, Project Elephant, says, "Both the theories have their implications for management and are useful. Needless to say, the area under study and the terrain conditions make a difference."

Desai says, "Where home ranges are totally lost the herds can end up wandering. A typical case is that of the herd that went off into Andhra Pradesh from Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Initially there was a lot of conflict but eventually the herd settled in the Trupati forests. But when similarly a herd wandered into Madhya Pradesh, the elephants caused a lot of problems. they were eventually captured and removed."

The elephant moving out of its disturbed habitat into nearby forested patches is slowly turning into an ominous trend. Till some years ago the elephants in South Bengal were temporary visitors; now they have begun spending more and more time in the reforested areas, travelling out of the degraded Dalma wildlife sanctuary in adjoining Bihar. The elephants are also recent visitors to Chhatisgarh. They have created considerable crop damage and deaths in the state. The state forest department is at a loss to understand why the beast has decided to bless them.

It is for these reasons that a question has begun to pop up in the minds of the scientists and forest officials involved with elephants. The question they ask, sometimes in hushed tones, is: Is there space for the 28, 000-odd elephants in India today?

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