The Maoist hotbed of Jharkhand has another killer — marauding bands of wild elephants making a savage statement to assert their right to space and food.
Government records show elephants mauled to death 66 people in 2015-16, while armed Maoist insurgents killed 57. The kings of the jungle were more compassionate the following year, accounting for 42 lives till this February, compared to the guerilla tally of 61.
Jharkhand is among a dozen states fighting a four-decade-old Maoist insurgency that is considered the country’s biggest internal security threat. They usually target police and bureaucrats, but don’t flinch before shooting dead people they suspect to be defying their diktat and as government informers.
Coordinated counter-insurgency measures have brought down Maoist violence drastically in the past three years.
“Development activities in remote, rural Jharkhand, police reach, the state’s surrender policy for insurgents, and awareness programmes in villages have helped reduce civilian casualties and weaken the left-wing extremism,” Jharkhand police spokesperson Ashish Batra said.
But human fatalities in man-elephant conflicts have not reduced across the countryside in the mineral-rich state that has a sizeable population of tribes living in jungles — a habitat they share with Maoists and wild animals alike.
The insurgents say they are fighting for the rights of peasants and landless labourers, the very people who become their target and that of a larger brute force: elephants. Jharkhand has 688 elephants, according to the last census.
Elephants killed about 59 people every year in the past decade. The highest casualty was in 2010-11 when 69 men and women died in the conflict.
“The scarcity of food such as bamboo, kajhi and khair in Jharkhand’s forests has forced the animals into villages,” said DS Srivastava, a former steering committee member of project elephant.
“Elephant herds panic when people chase them with ear-piercing sounds, firecrackers and blinding light. Confused elephants trample crops and destroy houses.”
Man-elephant conflict has become a jumbo-sized headache in a state where forests are shrinking to make way for homes, farms and mines. The large animals, which need roughly 140kg of food every day, rampage through villages and standing crops — killing men, women and children that come in their way.
The fragile ecosystem has been disturbed as human settlements, highways, train tracks, and mines have sprung up along corridors that elephants had been using for centuries to move from one forest to another. The usually gentle animals consider these as obstacles and threats, wildlife experts said.
Their search for food is bringing them closer to towns as well.
Jharkhand’s principal chief conservator of forest (wildlife), LR Singh, said a committee comprising five neighbouring states has been set up to find ways to bring down man-elephant conflicts.
Srivastava suggested an action plan with more forest staff and detailed study of elephant routes to reduce the conflict — a lasting battle that can never end unless forests get real protection from man’s activities.