Early 2014. Jit Munda was collecting leaves for a puja in a patch of jungle near a tea estate in the north of Assam's Udalguri district close to the Bhutan border. Suddenly, the former tea estate labourer realised a wild elephant was standing beside him. The adult male struck Munda down with his trunk, then stamped on his right leg, breaking the thigh bone. As Munda lay in agony on the ground, a few more wild elephants appeared, and then a female elephant charged and butted the male elephant away from the fallen man.
"She tapped me on my back with her trunk even as she fought, telling me to stay down," Munda said. "Maybe a human had been kind to her earlier, given her food or rescued her." Munda took six months to walk again, but he was luckier than the 22 people killed by wild elephants in Udalguri last year.
Domesticated elephants are slowly becoming a rare sight in Assam. These are a 45-year-old male (right) and a 12-year-old female in the Sootea development block, being taken around by their mahouts for foraging.
In 2014, seven elephants were also killed by electrocution, poisoning or shooting. This year, until June, eight people - mostly adivasis like Munda - had been killed in the district, while two elephants had died. One died of accidental poisoning (from a pesticide drum in a tea estate), and the other got electrocuted. Dwindling forest cover that leads to human-elephant conflict has killed 50 wild elephants in Udalgiri between 2005 and June 2015. Things are getting worse for both pachyderms and humans: while 24 people were killed by wild elephants between 2007 and 2011; 54 lost their lives between 2012 and 2014.
Now, the environment ministry has proposed allowing animals in human-animal conflict zones to be declared as vermin and shot. Jayanta Das, an environmental journalist and Assam coordinator of Elephants on the Line (EoL), a community-based programme to reduce human-elephant conflict in the India-Bhutan transboundary area, says applying such a step to wild elephants would change people's attitudes and make them see elephants as fair game. Right now, strict wildlife laws and a natural reverence among most communities towards elephants mean that their depredations on crops and villages are somewhat tolerated. Das says the majority of attacks by wild elephants occur when people get close and harass them.
Deforestation along the Assam-Bhutan and Assam-Arunachal Pradesh borders has led to a loss of habitat and foraging grounds for wild elephant herds. An ex-militant accompanying us in the Khalingduar RF (reserve forest) near the Bhutan border said the density of forest cover was roughly half of what it had been 20 years ago, with illegal loggers having felled most of the valuable trees. Loggers, increasingly equipped with power saws, are still at work in some areas of the reserve forest and up in the Bhutan hills.
|About 80 per cent area of Sonitpur district's 12 RFs (which covered almost 1,000 sq km) have disappeared, the bulk during the troubled 1990s; almost 50 per cent of Udalguri district's 3 RFs and 1 wildlife sanctuary have disappeared. |
From 2001 to 2014, in Sonitpur, 146 wild elephants died (from all causes) and 245 humans were killed by elephants (half of those in tea estate areas). From 2005 to 2014, 48 wild elephants died in Udalguri (25 during 2012-2014); while from 2007 to 2014, 78 humans were killed (Udalguri was separated from Darrang district in 2004).
In entire Assam, from 2003 to 2014, 733 humans were killed by wild elephants, according to Forest Department figures. From 2001 to 2014, 225 wild elephants were killed by poaching (32), poisoning (37), electrocution (107) and train hits (49). When other deaths, including those caused by disease and "unknown causes", are included the figure goes up: for example, just from 2007 to 2011, a total of 270 wild elephants died in the state.
Killed by politics
The 2012 wild elephant census in Assam puts elephant numbers at 5620, the majority of them in the north bank (above the Brahmaputra). But the forests on either side of the border that sustain the animal are fast disappearing. AK Singh, senior manager at Bhooteachang tea estate in north Udalguri, says 350 elephants were counted in a single herd in a nearby estate in the early 1990s. "Elephants have always entered our estates. Now the herds are fragmented - 30 to 40 in a herd at the most."
To the east of Udalguri is Sonitpur district (Udalguri, Sonitpur and Darrang districts were once part of a larger Darrang district). Studies by the Indian Institute of Remote Sensing, Dehra Dun, showed that, in the 1990s, this district had the highest rate of deforestation anywhere in India. Conservation workers say almost 80 per cent of the total area of nearly 1,000 sq km in the 12 reserve forests (RFs) was cleared. Charduar and Gohpur RFs (almost 40,000 hectares) have entirely disappeared, taken over by villages and cropland, while only 1/5th of Naduar and Biswanath RFs remain. Almost half of the 220 sq. km Sonai Rupai sanctuary is under encroachment. Udalguri district in the Bodoland Territorial Area Districts, though smaller in area, has seen at least 40 per cent decrease in reserve forest area due to encroachment.
A combination of poverty, population and politics has led to this situation in Sonitpur. Local people talk of surrendered militants and politicians who were involved in large-scale timber felling and settlement of people, with the assistance of a section of the administration. Decades-old trees that weren't cut down and shipped out from the railway stations at Rangapara and Missamari were converted into charcoal to be sold by the sack. Settlers in the thousands moved in. Here too, the destruction of habitat, loss of foraging areas, and the spread of human settlements and cropland eating into traditional elephant corridors have put man and animal in conflict. Between 2007 and 2011, 53 people were killed in Sonitpur by wild elephants. From 2012 to 2014, 37 more people died, while 19 elephants lost their lives (not all due to humans). According to WWF figures, the total death toll in the district from 2001 to 2014, stands at 146 wild elephants and 245 humans.
Paddy fields and houses in place of forest in Sonai Rupai sanctuary in Sonitpur district. Impossible task?
The state government had started several eviction drives since 1995, but these were either halted due to political interference, or because the settlers returned. Forest Department officials concede that it would be impossible for the state to evict the encroachers, who constitute a large vote bank, and then keep them out. In fact, some groups have been demanding that these villages be regularised.
Last winter, I visited a village off the Balipara-Bhalukpung road. First, a mud track running through harvested paddy fields, then dense bamboo groves and jackfruit trees and huts, and stacked hay - a rural idyll. There were also a few plots with tea bushes: the leaf is sold to factories. The middle-aged man whose hut I entered said he was originally from Goalpara, had moved to Lakhimpur with his father, and had come to the present location in 1995. "Forest-or mati dokhol koribo ahisilu," he said simply. "We had come to encroach Forest Department land." But after two decades, people like him naturally do not consider themselves as encroachers, and are demanding pattas from the government for their plots.
An encroached village on what was reserve forest land near Balipara in Sonitpur district. The absence of tree stumps in the paddy fields show how thoroughly encroachment has been carried out.
The good life
In Sonitpur, wild elephant herds come down in the winters from the hills of Arunachal to feed on ripe paddy and sugarcane. A local showed me a video on his camera from last winter of a herd of about 70 elephants moving through low-lying paddy fields near the Brahmaputra, a few kilometres from Tezpur. New houses and office complexes have blocked some of their old routes. A forest guard told us that elephants had come to prefer cultivated areas, as food was easily available there compared to the discomforts of the forest. People in many encroached villages in Sonitpur use solar-panel powered electric lines to keep their settlements safe. The Forest Department sometimes engages the services of kunkis or domestic elephants to chase off the herds.
The large-scale deforestation has stoked other conflicts. In northern Sonitpur, along the border with Arunachal Pradesh, militants have long used the rugged foothills to establish hideouts. The reserve forests that have been encroached remain intact on government maps. As a result, no roads, health centres, or police outposts can be set up there. Towards the end of 2014, the army conducted operations along the Assam-Bhutan and Assam-Arunachal borders, and within weeks, killed or apprehended many militants.
The Territorial Army's 134th Eco-Task Force Battalion (ETFB), whose camp is at Nameri near Balipara, has the difficult task of assisting the Forest Department in reviving forest cover. Raised in 2007, it is manned by local ex-jawans and officers from the Assam Regiment. The ETFB is fighting a constant war of attrition with the encroached villages over cultivated areas. This has led to sporadic stand-offs with villagers with ETFB men invariably having to stand down. But there is some success. The 134th usually plants around six lakh saplings per year. Left alone, in a few decades, the planted areas could return to something of their original stature. The Forest Department too does some plantation work in addition to a lot of policing.
Near the tri-junction of Bhutan, Arunachal Pradesh and Assam, in Udalguri district, the Sonai Anchalik Multipurpose Farm (SAMF) group has undertaken a similar project, planting some 14 lakh saplings over a 900 hectare area since 2007 under a National Afforestation Programme scheme. Esmail Daimari of the SAMF claims a success rate of 70 per cent (same as the Sonitpur ETFB percentage). He says floods in 1979 and 1989 and illegal loggers had turned the area into a wasteland.
Esmail Daimari of the SAMF inside the forest his group helped create in Udalguri district.
Disaster of mammoth proportions
Hiten Baishya, coordinator of WWF's elephant conservation programme, says areas where Assam has border disputes with Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland have also seen unchecked deforestation and encroachment from both sides. Moreover, with growing prosperity in Arunachal, people have started moving to the lower foothill areas, constructing houses and roads and cultivating forested land. This has led to a loss of habitat for elephants and the blocking of their traditional corridors. Baishya says, lately, elephant herds have been moving away from Balipara towards Gohpur, where there are several tea estates. The Arunachal government has reportedly asked for a 10th ETFB (there are nine in the country right now) for the state.
But afforestation and conservation measures in the north bank area are stop-gap in nature; the future for the elephant looks bleak as it is a long-living animal that needs vast areas to itself. With the ceaseless spread of settlements and cropland, human-animal conflict will only increase. The lack of political will to protect the environment and wildlife is the main obstacle. The larger issues at play in the area include undeveloped infrastructure and industry following India's defeat in the 1962 Indo-China war, leading to unemployment, one factor which led to logging becoming a source of income; and the political creation and exploitation of inter-community rifts leading to law and order problems that relegate wildlife issues to the background.
Ankush Saikia is the author of Dead Meat, a crime novel set in Delhi.