Seventeen years ago, as I was ambling home from school one afternoon — I was then a sixth standard student — a buzz was going around the village. “They’ve got Bin Laden,” someone said. “At last Bin Laden’s dead,” said another. By Bin Laden, they weren’t referring to the dreaded Al-Qaeda chief who only months ago had blown up the Twin Towers in New York City, and had succeeded in making a mark on peoples’ psyche as the embodiment of all things demonic, even in this remote village of mine in Assam’s Sonitpur district. The Bin Laden in question was a lone wandering elephant bull that had been wreaking havoc for years in dozens of villages in the vicinity of Nameri National Park. The animal was a notorious crop raider, as stealthy as a slithering snake in his nightly crop depredations, and occasionally attacked farmers guarding their fields, which was why the villagers had named him after Osama Bin Laden.
When years of requests to the Assam state forestry department to take action against the ‘erratic’ animal failed to elicit any response, villagers took the matter into their own hands. Desperate, they decided to poison the pachyderm. One night they laced Demecron, a deadly organophosphorus-based pesticide, over a few pumpkins, the elephant’s favourite food, and placed the pumpkins in a paddy field. The following morning the jumbo was found lying still and lifeless amid the greenery. Though the elephant had never ventured onto the croplands of our village, he’d occasionally raided crops in a neighbouring village. The news of the elephant’s death, therefore, ostensibly came as a relief for farmers in our village. The incident illustrates the fact that despite a long history of close interspecies alliances, and although elephants figure prominently in the country’s cultural and religious symbolism, living with elephants can be perilous.
Living with elephants
What does everyday life look like in a landscape shared — or rather contested — by humans and elephants? As darkness descends over the ripe paddy fields in the village of Kolabil, two subsistence farmers, Basho and Debaro Munda, climb up a monstrous fig tree and sit perched in the tree house (tongi-ghor) they’ve built high up in the branches. Equipped with a torch and a few firecrackers, they’ll spend the night keeping watch over their crops to deter wandering wild elephant herds. When the elephants appear, they will shine the torch at them and if the animals don’t budge, they’ll light firecrackers. Situated in western Sonitpur, often described as the ground zero of human-elephant conflict (HEC) in Assam, this village has been the setting of a stand-off between humans and elephants for over a decade now. In 2017, wild elephant herds damaged several houses and trampled two people to death here.
“We have to drive the elephants out, without caring for our lives. If we fail to protect the crops, our families will starve,” they say. “Elephants can be very stealthy while raiding crops. If you don’t stay alert all the time you won’t know when they come and eat the crops. We have to remain awake for many nights at a stretch. This is physically taxing and mentally very stressful,” is their lament. “When you have to live in constant fear of confrontation with elephants gone berserk, you feel traumatised and weak. You never know where death awaits you,” Basho says.
Basho and Debaro’s precarious experience of living with elephants represents the plight of thousands of poor, hapless villagers in HEC-affected areas across Assam. Indeed, research has shown the serious negative effects of HEC on people’s wellbeing and mental health in Assam. According to a research paper by Jadhav and Barua (2012) the conflict “worsens pre-existing mental illness of marginalised people, and leads to newer psychiatric and social pathologies.”
There are, however, a few instances where humans and elephants live side by side relatively undisturbed. In Assam’s Udalguri district, Tenzing Badosa, a local organic tea grower, has successfully linked tea cultivation with elephant conservation. In the buffer zones of his two farms, a total of 40 acres located on the Assam-Bhutan border, Badosa has left a refuge patch for wild elephants frequenting the area. Growing banana and other fruits on that plot of land, he has provided an idyllic temporary shelter for wild elephants. The young tea planter claims that human-elephant confrontations have reduced in the locality since he developed that refuge patch.
Recently, a peculiar herd of elephants that roam on the riparian areas south of the Brahmaputra drew the attention of local conservationists. Unlike other wild elephants, the members of this herd have shown considerable tolerance to human existence, according to conservationists. It is believed that this is the same herd that spends a portion of the year in close proximity to human settlements in the 550-hectare (1,360-acre) forest on the island of Aruna Chapori, created by ‘forest man’ Jadav Payeng.
Another recent incident illustrates the depth of the affective bonds humans share with elephants in Assam. When an old wild elephant passed away in May 2019 in Kaliabor, an HEC-affected area in the state’s Nagaon district, villagers organised a funeral ritual for the animal. The lone elephant, reverentially called Burha baba by the villagers, had been hit and injured by a train three years earlier. Since then he’d lived in the private orchards of the village without harming anyone. As a mark of affection and respect, the villagers observed the traditional last rites for the elephant.
Despite such instances of peaceful co-existence between humans and elephants, the larger picture is bleak: levels of HEC are rising every day.
To understand how serious and burgeoning the HEC problem has become in Assam over the years, let’s have a look at the statistics. Assam is northeastern India’s prime elephant-range state harbouring 5,719 individuals of the species, according to a 2017 survey. Since 1972, the state has lost 65 per cent of lowland semi-evergreen forests — nearly all of these were elephant range habitats — as a result of deforestation, erosion, and the expansion of agriculture. According to a study conducted by the Indian Institute of Remote Sensing, Dehradun, and published in 2018 in the journal Current Science, from 1924 to 2009 Assam and Arunachal Pradesh saw “an alarming, continuous” loss of about 7,590 sq km of forest cover. The study also predicted a further likely decrease of 9,007.14 sq km by 2028.
Asian elephants are by nature long-range animals: a typical family herd consisting 5 to 20 individuals needs a home range size of 100–1,000 sq km. An individual elephant consumes about 150 kg of forage and 190 litres of water every day. Meeting these needs requires a large foraging area with a variety of grasses, shrubs, tree leaves, roots, and fruits. Elephants simply cannot live in fenced-off protected areas. In the backdrop of massive habitat loss, the generalist mega-herbivore has been forced into a fierce competition with humans over ever-shrinking resources and habitats. And the results are often fatal. On both sides.
Parimal Suklabaidya, Assam’s forest and environment minister, earlier this year revealed that as per the data available with the state government, 761 people and 249 elephants had died in HEC between 2010 and 2018. The highest number of elephant deaths occurred due to electrocution (92) followed by train accidents (54). This was followed by other accidental deaths (38), poisoning (30), poaching (20), and injury (15). And a total of 16,410 acres of cropland was destroyed by wandering wild elephants between 2010-11 and 2018-19.
Given the gravity of the problem, Assam-based conservation group Aaranyak has asked the government to treat the HEC in the state as a disaster. The situation, according to Aaranyak, is indeed disastrous in the state’s Sonitpur, Udalguri, Goalpara, Karbi Anglong, Nagaon, and Golaghat districts.
Roots of the conflict
In the recently published book, Giants of the Monsoon Forest: Living and Working with Elephants, geographer Jacob Shell argues that more than poaching, it is deforestation that has imperiled the Asian elephant. Talking to elephant experts and conservationists in the field, I found that this is true for Assam’s elephant population. Dwindling habitats across the state has pushed elephants into an increasingly hostile relationship with humans sharing the same landscape.
The seeds of the problem were sown back in the colonial era, in the process of building the tea empire of British India’s northeastern frontiers. “Once tea was discovered, tea-capitalism followed afoot, and massive forest tracts were opened for commercial tea plantations across northern and eastern Assam kick-starting a trend of wildlife habitat loss and fragmentation,” says Arupjyoti Saikia, professor of history at the Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati, Assam.
Saikia, the author of Forests and Ecological History of Assam, 1826-2000, says habitat loss and fragmentation are the most potent ecological reasons for human-elephant conflict in the state. Land conversion for infrastructure, industrial, and development projects has been gnawing away at elephant habitats, and traditional elephant migration routes across the state have been cut. “Farmlands provide rights of passage for the wandering elephant herds that cover a wide range. Once these agricultural lands are converted into industrial blocks, elephants are denied access to their habitats, pushing them into an increasingly conflictual relationship with humans,” he writes. What has particularly aggravated the situation in the last couple years is the proliferation of projects such as roads, railways, and highways across the state, all of which block off elephants’ traditional migration routes and render long-range movement more and more difficult.
Expanding tea plantations too play a pivotal role in shaping HEC. Elephants use tea plantations as ‘stepping stones’ as they move through human-dominated landscapes, according to conservation scientist Scot Wilson’s research on the conflict in Sonitpur. The pachyderms take refuge in plantations during the day and continue their migration at night. Sometimes they use plantations as a ‘base’ to forage on succulent crops in outlying villages. That’s why, Wilson observes, occurrence of HEC is higher in areas surrounding tea plantations.
An often overlooked factor at play in exacerbating HEC in Assam is the state’s peculiar fluvial geography. The mighty Brahmaputra and its numerous tributaries erode massive tracts of land every year, while also creating new sandbars along their course. Since the 1950s, the state has lost 4.27 lakh hectares of land, which is more than 7 per cent of the state’s total land area —almost three times the size of Delhi — to erosion. With near zero support from the government, the people rendered landless by erosion have no option but to encroach upon forestland. This partially explains why more than 22 per cent of the state’s forest areas — all occupied by elephants — are encroached upon.
Moreover, along the Assam-Nagaland foothills, a major elephant habitat, a growing “neo-tribal capitalism” thrives on clandestine connections between insurgents, tea and rubber planters, government officials, and locals. In these tracts, traditional forest and land resources are being capitalised, and the emerging middle classes are clearing or occupying forests in a bid to reclaim the forest for their various communities.
However, while availability — or non-availability — of forest cover remains the prime factor, it is not the sole factor determining elephant persistence in Assam, according to a University of Oxford-collaborated research. “The attitudes and tolerance of people in Assam and elsewhere remain central to the search for ways to allow people and elephants to share the landscape,” the study states. In Assam, the attitude of the villagers towards wild elephant herds pillaging croplands is mostly ambivalent, and it varies with the fluctuations in the local ecology of human-elephant relations. “When the animals are not damaging crops, villagers tend to call the pachyderms with reverential terms such as Dangoriya or baba. But when the animals go marauding, people increasingly come to see them as vermin,” says Saurav Borkataky, the honorary wildlife warden of Sonitpur.
Yet another peculiar aspect of the HEC in Assam is the role of liquor. Maan Barua, a human geographer at the University of Oxford, sheds light on this rather interesting material ecology of human-elephant interactions in Assam. Barua observes that sulāi, the popular country liquor in the state, shapes the local ecology of human-elephant interactions in at least two visible ways. First, elephants are immensely attracted to sulāi, which brings the jumbos to peoples’ houses and in the process leads to the trampling of property and humans. Second, an inebriated state of mind post sulāi consumption helps villagers brave the elephants while their guarding crops.
According to Assam-based wildlife expert Anwaruddin Choudhury, one of the only possible solutions to mitigate HEC in the state is to restore elephant habitats to pre-1990 conditions.
While this looks far from feasible, what conservationists believe can be done is: figure out historical elephant migration routes and recover the lost routes by creating connecting corridors. Elephant corridors serve two purposes: they allow the animals to navigate man-made obstacles; and they can help preserve genetic connectedness between two populations.
Needless to say, further habitat loss and fragmentation must be arrested at the earliest. Conservationists in the state are also trying to convince more tea-growers in HEC-hit areas to adopt an elephant-friendly plantation model such as Badosa’s — this could go a long way in tackling the issue at the local level.
Furthermore, current and future land-use plans need to accommodate elephants. Such plans have to be site-specific and contextual precisely because elephant herds are found in different situations across Assam: large populations inhabiting large habitats, large populations inhabiting fragmented habitats, small populations in large habitats, and small populations in fragmented habitats. Therefore, the nature of conflicts these elephant populations face is quite different.
In spite of the fact that the Assam state forest department is understaffed, underequipped, and lacking in funds and professional expertise, in addition to facing a severe shortage of kumki, trained elephants used in drive-out operations against crop-raiding wild elephants, they’re taking up tentative measures: mostly erection of low-intensity fences and formation of anti-depredation forces.
But these short-term measures have managed to only spatially reshuffle the problem if they have any effect at all, Borkataky tells me. “The elephants are on the retreat. One day they’ll vanish altogether, if we keep pushing them to the edge,” he sighs.