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The Sleepless Sentinel

Born conservationist !
Elephant driver doesn’t care of reward at Dhansimla

Samik Gupta, NINB, Sonamukhi, Bankura: Does not care of reward or any return; born conservationist Kamal Banerjee (35) of Dhansimla village, Bankura has dedicated himself to protect the wild elephant herds, since 2005! Basically a marginal farmer, having only 8 bigghas of paddy field for a living but copes-up with more than 50% loss caused by the elephants! Kamal smiles and never had he claimed compensation, unlike thousand other villagers. “They suffer from starvation and migrates a long way to meet-up their hunger. Can't we share with them?” –Kamal said to Nature Indian.

Elephant migration problem along with depredation was never as difficult and challenging, as it is today. Comparison to the southern states of the country, severely affected are the east-Indian states, extended upto north-east India. West Bengal is no exception. In earlier times, wild elephant management problem was endemic only in the Duars region of North Bengal. As time passed, the problem surprisingly erupted in Southern Bengal, since 1987. A large number of elephants (gradually increasing) from Dalma hills in Jharkhand have started migrating to the densely populated Mednapore, Bankura and Purulia districts during August- September (now July- August), every year. Although, migration habit of elephants is phylo-genetically very old. This is due to their higher dietary requirement and pillar-like leg structure that buoyant the body weight and reduce tiredness.

Now in south Bengal, it can be surprisingly observed that the elephants are not only migrating for the forest foods, as their home range of Dalma Hills still consist of healthy forest stretches. Their nutritional habits are rather changing towards agricultural crops, than the traditional diets; which are found plenty in the forest stretches. Now the problem is increasing in an alarming rate because of their population growth, fragmented forest chunks and sporadic encroachment of human settlement throughout their migratory routes. Hence, elephant herds follow well-defined seasonal migratory routes. These are followed around the monsoon season, often between the wet and dry zones. When human farms obstruct these old routes, there is often considerable damage done to crops and it is common for elephants to be killed in the ensuing conflicts.

Villagers confirmed that the herd enroots through Bishnupur, Jaipur and immediately cross the Darakeswar River. Without halting anywhere they move towards Narcha through PrakashGhat, SarbamangalaGhat. After crossing the Narcha road, they pass Kusurdip forest and reach to Dhansimla. They mostly stay over here for a prolonged period as the area offers a good habitat with plenty of forest shelters, nearby water bodies and endless crop fields. After exploiting the local food resources they move further to Sonamukhi, Saltora, Barjora and Gangajalghanti finally. On return, they usually follow the same route and again halt at Dhansimla. So the conflict occurs twice at Dhansimla, every year. “The challenge in Dhansimla cannot be compared with other locations” –Kamal said.

Male elephants have home ranges of about 15 sq. km. and herds of females of about 30 sq. km. (larger in the dry season). In the past, elephants migrated seasonally, but a number of socio-economic features of present human era have made this virtually impossible. Elephant eats 10% of their body weight each day, which for adults is between 170-200 kilograms and requires 80–200 litres of water for drinking and bathing purposes. Elephant migrations may occur in any of the following ways:

  • Individual family group separate themselves from the larger herd. This method may be used when limited food supplies are encountered during a dry season migration.

  • Several family groups, usually between two and five may form a larger group called ‘bond groups’ for migration. These groups require more food resources along the migratory route.

  • Occasionally, entire population of elephant herds join together in mass migration, with estimates 500 individuals are reported. These herds require sufficient amount of food resources along the migratory route.

The Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972 can also partially be blamed to some extent, courtesy- its limitations. The law itself provides total conservation of the endangered species by replacing population management practice of earlier times. The act does not allow capturing or shifting of increasing population, by ignoring the holding capacity as well as the demographic pattern and agro-climatic condition of any particular area! So that the aforesaid act not only becomes a threat to the elephants, but human too. It somehow indulges man-elephant conflict in the adjoining areas. A senior forest officer says “I do not know, why the existing law isn’t still amended; to capture elephant and to distribute where it’ll be appreciated or required. Many international zoos are looking for Asiatic elephants. Even more, there is a heavy demand of elephant domestication for hiring purposes, especially in ceremonial programs and carrying goods.” This has become a subject of great concern in terms of elephant conservation.

From field experience, it revealed that more or less 60% of the elephants are prominently injured by man. This mainly happens when the mob drives a herd, as they violently throw stones and spears too. Inflammation signs have also been spotted on their bodies, as the mob often throws burning flambeaus. The situation is really a nightmare for a conservationist. What does the protection act means then, which leads to torture the animals? Why can’t site based laws be introduced, by an amendment of old laws (Wildlife Protection Act 1972)? “I feel badfor the animals, I feel bad for the villagers. We are somehow managing the situation, nothing to do in-fact! We need some long-term solution”- Kamal added.

Crop damage, human death and causalities by elephants are the main reasons for the conflict. The crop raiding pattern of migratory elephants in South Bengal revealed that they are almost dependent on paddy till December. Factually,elephants are getting some palatable food, without much effort and thus gradually changing their food habit; perhaps considering the nutritive value. Collectively, they are enjoying ample facilities, would lead them permanently to stay over here. The migratory elephant herds have damaged some around 1000 hectares crops each year, coupled with hut damage and life loss. “Till date 12-15 people have already been killed by wild elephants at Sonamukhi alone! I run day and night but do not know how we can protect these wild imamates and the villagers with the limited resources!” –Kamal said.

It is observed on each year that six cultivated crops viz. paddy (Oryza sativa), sugarcane (Saccharumofficinarum), potato (Solanumtuberosum), cabbage (Brassica oleraceavarcapitaria), wheat (Triticumaestivum) and gourd (Cucumbita maxima) were the major dietary items of elephants, with paddy being the most important and favorite one.

On an average, five persons are trampled to death when Dalma herds migrate every year while at least one elephant falls prey to the man–animal conflict. Besides, acres of standing crops and dozens of houses are damaged. The migratory elephants usually stay for approximately 8 months. The long stay depicts more conflict in the zone. Increasing drainage of public money for ex-gratia payments towards losses of human life, crop damage, livestock and hut damage. There is also considerable expenditure from non plan budget for purchasing kerosene, diesel, crackers, jute etc. to meet the cost of elephant driving. On an average, few crores ofrupees compensation paid to the farmers, also appears insufficient (10-15% of actual loss)!“I really feel guilty when a widow (husband died in elephant attack) comes to me with her kids and ask to poison them. Government compensates rupees two lakh only! A potato farmer cultivates by spending rupees 10,000 per biggha, while he gets mere rupees 500 as compensation, that too one and a half years later! Even the Government is unable to compensate the sufferer groups adequately, on time.”-he informed.

The problem becomes more severe due to the clear separation of elephant herds. One is the migratory herd from Dalma hills, which consists of 60-90 elephants and another the residential herd of 23/24 elephants; commonly called as Mayurjharna herd. The second herd creates permanent problem as it stays in West Bengal throughout the year and moves within the long stretch from Bandoyan range of Purulia district to Katapahari of Mednapore. “This herd causes more damage as it is habituated with driving and ‘hulla’ operation and often chases in return” –Kamal added.

A disastrous situation is being observed throughout the ranges and public grievance to a great extent. However, the problem is escalating in south Bengal in an alarming rate every year; perhaps would end with a sudden outburst and the consequences may not be good for the government and the elephants too. An urgent need has been felt to incorporate the dialogue between the rulers and the local people to amend the existing act and evolve a realistic solution of the problem. Electric fencing, driving, route trenching may not provide any long term solution. The local people are demanding total compensation of damages as per present market price, which would not be possible for the government. “I request the forest department to supply pure fuel for herd driving. Impure fuels (water mixed!) often push us to death!”-Kamal concluded.

Under circumstance, the Government may think to push those elephants in semi-captive condition and the concept of ex-situ management can be applied for them. This can be referred to the zoos; in a greater spectrum (suggested by Nature Indian, since 2011). The existing act (Wildlife Protection Act -1972) may be amended or incorporation of Site-based clause is essential. Forest patches in different divisions can be utilized for this purpose with digging of long trench and partial food supply. It would also help in eco-tourism development in the concerned areas. It should be pondered and act right now, before it is too late.