UDALGURI, Jan 5 - The escalating man-elephant conflict in areas bordering Bhutan in Udalguri district continues to pose a grave conservation challenge. A spurt in the conflict this year has seen the death of 20 persons and three elephants as against corresponding figures of six and three in 2010. In 2009, the fatalities stood at 15 and six respectively.
Of the 20 human deaths this year, seven, however, were cases of trespass inside forests.
While marauding herds of elephants in search of food have made it a habit to inflict heavy damage on crops, the villagers - whose sustenance is agriculture - have been found to indulge in retaliatory killing, mainly through poisoning and electrocution.
At the core of the crisis lies large-scale habitat destruction on the Assam side along the border. "There used to be a long and contiguous stretch of forested buffer area including proposed reserve forests (PRFs) which now stands replaced by tea gardens and human settlements. Much of the buffer was injudiciously allotted to small tea cultivation by the Government," Bankim Sarma, DFO, Dhansiri Division, says.
At the same time, the humanitarian aspect of the crisis is also difficult to ignore. Delay in paying compensation to the victims due to lengthy official procedures, complexities involved in verification, and late release of funds is having a provocative impact on the affected villagers who do not hesitate to vent their ire on the elephants.
Conservationists feel that apart from short-term measures like engaging anti-depredation squads and equipping the villagers to ward off raiding herds, restoration of habitat and elephant corridors should be integral to a long-term solution of the crisis.
"Elephants tend to get accustomed to the tactics used to drive them away. A lasting solution lies in habitat protection and restoration to the extent possible. We have achieved some success at Bhairabkunda and this needs to be replicated elsewhere," Sarma says.
Electrocution of elephants due to negligence on the part of some tea garden managements and the Assam State Electricity Board (ASEB) has emerged as a big concern. This year, two elephants were electrocuted on low-lying live wires near tea estates.
"We have video-graphic evidence of the tea gardens authorities' negligence and even filed an FIR in one case besides taking up the matter with the managements in periodical meetings. Unfortunately, a few gardens continue to be callous," Sarma says.
Existence of narrow and deep trenches inside tea gardens is another death-trap for elephants, especially young calves. "Elephants are increasingly giving birth to calves inside tea gardens and there have been instances of newborn babies falling and dying in the trenches," Ananta Bagh of Green Valley Forest and Wildlife Protection Society, says.