Villagers in north Chhattisgarh’s forested districts are being asked not to brew and stock their favourite liquor at home to avoid uninvited guests in the form of wild elephants. High on local brew, these tuskers have run amok, damaging settlements and claiming over 50 lives last year alone.
Some villagers have heeded the advisory, many are still reluctant, according to forest department officials conducting awareness drives against homemade liquor. “Elephant herds come sniffing from more than 10km away for the pungent beverages,” said Naved Shujauddin, divisional forest officer of Surajpur.
Sashi Bhushan Kirketta, a resident of Neematoli village of Jashpur district, is among those who have decided to quit brewing the liquor. “We have stopped brewing liquor from mahua (a nectar-rich flower) because of elephants. Whoever is still brewing it is ensuring it is sold quickly to avoid storing it in the village.” Kirketta acknowledged people always knew homemade liquor caught the fancy of elephants, but their incursions had become too frequent and destructive to ignore.
Apart from entering villages while foraging for food — particularly jackfruit, sugarcane and paddy — elephants also get drawn to ‘mahua sharaab’ and paddy-based drinks favoured by tribals. Their forays often lead to houses being destroyed and even deaths.
“Though a comprehensive official report is awaited, more than 50 people died across Chhattisgarh in human-elephant conflict in 2016,” said an official who did not want to be named as he is not authorised to speak to the media.
The fatalities marked a rise from 2015 when, according to forest department data, 44 people died in human-animal conflict. Such conflicts are routinely reported from Jashpur, Balrampur, Surguja, Surajpur, Dharamjaigarh, Raigarh and Korba regions.
Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Odisha have 10% of the elephants in India but, on an average, account for approximately 65% of human casualty due to the human-elephant conflict, according to a Greenpeace report.
Forest guards are at the forefront of the government’s awareness drives against homemade liquor. “They are engaging youth under the ‘Hathi Mitra Dal’ (friends of elephants) programme and also training them on preventing elephant attacks and good practices,” said Manoj Pandey, divisional forest officer (DFO), Jashpur. ‘Hathi Mitra Dals’ abound in north Chhattisgarh.
Senior forest department officers said the human-elephant conflict in the northern parts started in the late 1980s when 18 elephants migrated from neighbouring Jharkhand (then a part of Bihar) and Odisha. These officers estimate the number of elephants in the region has now swelled to more than 300.
Bilaspur-based wildlife activist Neetu Gupta blames the human-elephant conflict on “decreasing forest cover because of mining and development projects”. Incidentally, Sarguja, Raigarh and Korba have nearly 100% of the coal reserves of Chhattisgarh. Wildlife activists claim most mining areas are on routes elephants use.